Around 10 p.m., approximately 90 minutes after finishing a relatively healthy dinner of roasted chicken and olive oil-drenched brussels sprouts, a voice in my head reminds me that a 4-pound sack of Kirkland-brand trail mix sits in an empty hat box next to my TV. Comprised of peanuts, cashews, almonds, raisins and M&Ms, Costco’s trail mix is a symphony of sweet and salty satisfaction that hits all the spots, which unfortunately includes my ever-growing gut. After all, a 3-tablespoon serving has 160 calories, 10 grams of fat and 12 grams of carbohydrates. (And who eats just 3 tablespoons of trail mix?)
Upon removing the lid of the hat box, I’m reminded of another recent Costco impulse buy — a family-size bag of Swedish Fish (348 pieces in all) — which my (recovering) drug-addicted brain reasons is permissible since the fish are “mini.” The gummy minnows pack a problematic punch, though, as a dozen of them amount to 510 calories, 31 grams of fat and 27 grams of carbs — along with 1,590 milligrams of sodium.
Given that I typically alternate fistfuls of Swedish Fish and trail mix, my post-dinner nighttime “snack” can easily eclipse 1,200 calories.
All of which is to say: I’m an ideal candidate for Nightfood, a first-of-its-kind sleep-friendly nutrition bar specifically formulated for snacking during the dangerous hours between dinner and bedtime. Founded by New Yorker Sean Folkson in 2010, Nightfood went public in 2015 and is aiming to disrupt the $118 billion “snack market” — which includes ice cream; spring rolls; yogurt; cookies; candy; cake; cheese snacks; crackers; chips; sushi; nuts; dried meat; frozen pizza; and snack bars — nearly half of which is consumed after dinner according to market research company IRI, which estimates that Americans inhale a billion dollars of evening and late-evening snacks every year.
Yet despite such a seemingly big business opportunity, there are currently no nighttime-specific snacks like Nightfood on the market, something Folkson attributes to the stigma against after-dinner snacking. “People think, Everybody knows you’re not supposed to eat late at night. Well, many people do, and it can be a real problem. We’re the first company to develop snacks specifically for nighttime cravings and with sleep in mind.”
On a quest to shave calories from my pre-bedtime nosh, I order a box of Midnight Chocolate Crunch bars (they also come in “Cookies N’ Dreams” variety), and come 10 p.m., pause upon reaching for my hat box of Swedish Fish and trail mix and instead crack open some Nightfood. The bar isn’t big — about the size of a Kudos — but the first bite is a choco-splosion that momentarily fools my brain into thinking I’m feeding it junk. Folkson says I’m responding to the chocamine, a patented natural ingredient that helps deliver the health benefits of chocolate without all the calories, fat, sugar and caffeine.
Others are less impressed, however, and say the bars taste like grass and wet soil, and that “the only way it’s going to curb your appetite is by leaving such a gross taste in your mouth that you won’t think about eating.” But to me, it’s like an above-average, crunchy brownie. The texture is surprisingly satisfying, too, and offers my big fat mouth something to chew on, releasing a hit of fake chocolate with just enough dopamine to keep the lid on the hat box for the duration of the evening. In fact, Midnight Chocolate Crunch has proven a reliable substitute for my nightly binge for nearly a week.
The inspiration for Nightfood came to Folkson in his 20s when he “used to eat all kinds of garbage” come 10 p.m. — e.g., pizza, ice cream, Cocoa Pebbles, you name it. Attempting to watch his waistline, he began stocking Myoplex energy bars in the house, which he ate whenever he got hungry — usually one at 8:30 p.m. and another at midnight. He wasn’t sleeping well, though, and rightly noted that energy bars probably weren’t a great call when on the way to bed. “There were bars for pregnant women, bars for golfers, bars for pre-workout and post-workout and even bars for ballet dancers,” he says. “Why wasn’t there anything for nighttime snacking?”
Probably because everyone knows you’re not supposed to eat a fucking candy bar at midnight.
“Never, ever eat anything after 7 p.m. if you want to lose weight,” confirms Sharon at Skinny Me Med, a weight-loss management service in L.A. If you must eat something, she lectures, make sure it’s very low in carbs. Dietician Miriam Jacobson with EveryBodyBliss agrees. “Ideally you’re going to eat most of your calories during the day,” she says. “Leave two hours between the last thing you eat and going to sleep to allow your body to digest.” Two other nutritionists echo some variation of the same theme, though our friend David Wiss with Nutrition in Recovery says he doesn’t believe in cut-off times; rather, the key is to distribute calories evenly throughout the day. “Some people exercise in the evenings and should eat more post-workout,” he notes. “Others get a serotonin benefit from some evening carbs.”
Folkson admits that he isn’t a scientist — “I’m just a guy” — and is quick to point out that Nightfood is nether designed for weight loss nor for anyone practicing hyper-limiting diets like Keto. He’s always been intrigued by nutrition’s bidirectional relationship to sleep, though, and was inspired by articles from sleep experts like Joy Bauer, Dr. Michael Breus and the National Sleep Foundation, who are all in agreement that it’s better to eat something rather than going to bed on an empty stomach, as long as that something is around 150 calories.
“The body wasn’t meant to go to bed hungry,” explains Breus, a lifelong nighttime snacker (who, full disclosure, is an advisor to Nightfood). “The Sleep Doctor” explains that our animal instinct tells us that if we’re hungry, we should stay up and forge for food. This leads to increased levels of cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, which can make it difficult to fall asleep. Eating moderate amounts of carbohydrates causes an increase in serotonin, the calming hormone, which he says counteracts the cortisol and helps us to fall asleep.
In fact, when Nightfood initially launched in 2010, it included melatonin as a sleep aid, but it didn’t connect with consumers, many of whom were opposed to anything remotely medicinal. (That said, a CBD product is currently in development.) Breus says that as a sleep doctor, many of the products he gets sent are sleep promoting. “They might have valerian, ashwagandha or lavender, whereas most ‘nutrition’ bars on the market are energy-related.” Nightfood, on the other hand, is basically neutral save for a sleep-promoting mineral blend that includes tricalcium phosphate, magnesium oxide and mixed tocopherols. “Even the oats are proven to help with sleep,” Folkson adds.
Wiss remains skeptical, though. While the macronutrient balance (carbohydrates + protein + fat) “does make a lot of sense,” he notes that there’s virtually no “alive” food in Nightfood (i.e., something spoilable like yogurt as opposed to things like Twinkies that don’t go bad) apart from oats and amaranth. Like most bars, he adds, everything is supplemental foodstuff to maximize shelf-life. “This maximizes convenience,” he adds, “but not nutrition.”
As for Folkson, he says the bars have demonstrated that people care about the problem of night snacking and want to solve it. Case in point: Nightfood did $75,000 in sales in the last quarter of 2017, a number he says is growing at “accelerating rates.” (For context, Oreo does more than $1 billion a year in sales in the U.S. alone, so Folkson admits Nightfood has a long way to go before unseating them.) But, he notes, the trend is toward healthier options, and he predicts over the next decade that the nighttime-specific snack category he’s essentially creating will surpass $1 billion in consumer spend.
In the meantime, he’s diversifying his product line — developing Nightfood potato chips and taking on Halo Top Ice Cream, the low-calorie, high-protein pints that dethroned top-selling Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs last year to become the best-selling ice cream in the U.S. Folkson is working with the best ice cream formulation lab in the country on an innovative, delicious and sleep-friendly product and expects Nightfood ice cream to be “explosive” when it’s rolled out in 2019.
Honestly, I don’t even need explosions. I just need self-discipline. Or a cheat, which is really what Nightfood offers. As Wiss points out, it’s not good for me per se. But it’s not a fistful of Swedish Fish or trail mix either. And so, for me at least, it’s a start.