Can't sleep? There's a snack for that

We blame bedtime snacks for everything from insomnia to putting on extra weight. But brands are working to turn this narrative around with innovations such as ice creams that prevent ‘micro-awakenings’ and chocolates that prepare your body for sleep.
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All the stress and anxiety of 2020 has created a new market for food and drinks that claim to promote relaxation and sleep. A small but growing number of products designed for pre-bedtime snacking are surfacing. Marketed as healthier than traditional late-night fare, they also carry the benefit of helping the mind and body sink into slumber.

The market research firm Mintel calls nighttime snacking ‘one of the most compelling and category-changing trends’ in its annual Global Food and Drink Trends report. More than 80% of consumers already snack regularly just before going to bed, suggesting there is a huge, possibly untapped, market for healthy bedtime food.

Understandably, there is cynicism in some circles about people who have trouble sleeping but want to snack right before bed. Medication for sleep issues has been in the public sphere since the seventies, when benzodiazepine pills hit the mass market. But snacks that help you fall asleep are the fruits of a more recent hybrid industry, which has developed thanks to a combination of relaxed drug policy, broader public interest in self-care and sophisticated marketing from new food brands.

‘People like chocolate and people want to sleep,’ says Tom Spier, founder of venture capital firm BFG Partners, which is based in Boulder, Colorado. ‘It’s a good match.’ One of BFG’s earliest investments after launching in 2014 was Boulder-based confectioner Good Day Chocolate. A serving of its strongest product contains around 5mg of the sleep hormone melatonin and knocks you right out (at least according to the generally positive Amazon reviews).

This is an extension of the lucrative and established melatonin business. The original sleep supplement was discovered in 1958 and made available as a pill in the US in the mid-nineties. After some back and forth with the Food and Drug Administration, melatonin snacks followed in the early 2010s and launched the drug into the mainstream. By 2017, it was the most popular non-prescription sleep remedy in the US, bringing in more than $400 million a year, according to wellness industry publication Nutrition Business Journal.

What’s different today is that these pharmaceutical products have been repackaged in a more enticing manner, offering a new approach to an age-old problem. ‘Sleep challenges cross all demographics and psychographics [psychological criteria]. There’s not a US state we haven’t sold into,’ says Tom, whose firm has raised more than $150 million in funding to date. ‘But giving people what look like M&M’s chocolates with sleep functionality was a slightly different idea and maybe a bit of a mental leap for some folks.’

It’s too early to assess how profitable the sleep snack sector will become, but the number of new brands combined with the fact that the snack industry is worth £2.7 billion in the UK alone, according to data provider Statista, suggest it’s worth keeping track of. The global pandemic has presented further growth opportunities: people are snacking more in lockdown. According to a survey by food company Mondelēz International from November 2020, 40% of more than 6,000 respondents said they were eating more between meals, and at all hours of the day.

Some snacks to try

1. Nightfood Sean Folkson was a ‘frustrated nighttime snacker’ so he founded the ‘sleep-friendly’ ice-cream brand Nightfood. The ice cream contains ‘sleep-supporting’ nutrients like magnesium and zinc, and less of the sugar, fat and calories that traditional ice creams contain, which cause what sleep experts call ‘micro-awakenings’ during the night.

2. MEDA Each can of this sparkling soft drink contains 15mg of CBD plus vitamins and minerals that, depending on the variety, help with recovery, focus or sleep. Its cherry- and-hibiscus-flavoured drink claims to make you sleep better and contains organic cannabidiol, valerian root extract for a calming effect, morello cherry to provide a natural source of melatonin and 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan, an amino acid) to increase melatonin production.

3. Driftwell Last year, Pepsi moved into the wellness space and launched Driftwell, a non-carbonated canned drink that contains a small quantity of the amino acid L-theanine, which boosts the brain’s levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neurotransmitter). Lower-than- normal levels of GABA have been linked to depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. It’s a simple, effective way for the food giant to reach a more health-conscious audience, although whether it helps you sleep better is open to interpretation.

4. Goodnight Part of Foundry Foods, a small business incubator in Ohio backed by Nestlé, this chocolate brand describes itself as ‘a snack food, not a supplement, that helps you relax and prepare the body for sleep’. It contains L-theanine and magnesium, and its design echoes the famous Baci chocolate from Italy.

5. Good Source Foods With relatively low sugar content and high protein levels – plus lavender to help relaxation – Good Source’s Evening Chill protein clusters are a healthier chocolate option. The Wisconsin company launched in 2019 off the back of the new intersection between self-care and snacking.

This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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