The makers of Cracker Jack are adding a little more pop to their candy-coated popcorn. Frito-Lay will introduce Cracker Jack'D Power Bites caffeinated snacks later this year.
The jacked-up munchies will come in two flavors -- vanilla mocha and cocoa java -- and "will contain approximately 70 mg of caffeine in each 2 oz. package" by adding coffee to the list of ingredients alongside sugar and molasses, the company said.
That's a caffeine kick equivalent to a 1-ounce serving of espresso or two 12-ounce servings of cola.
The added java jolt has prompted concern from the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In a letter to the Federal Drug Administration, the center charges that the planned snack violates federal food rules. "Caffeine is generally recognized as safe only in cola-type beverages and only at concentrations of 0.02% or less (about 72 mg per 12 oz.)," the organization's letter reads.
A Frito-Lay representative said, "It is worth pointing out the regulation referenced in the Center for Science's letter to FDA speaks to caffeine -- not coffee -- and is not an exhaustive list of the safe uses of caffeine in foods and beverages. Rather, it represents one particular recognized safe use."
The representative stressed that the company is adding coffee to the product that's likely to reach stores early next year.
Jeff Cronin, the center's director of communications, conceded that Cracker Jack'D might sidestep the FDA's regulations because the Power Bites caffeine comes from coffee but said it doesn't diminish the group's concerns about the amped-up treat's appeal to children.
"It is wholly inappropriate to add caffeine to a kid-friendly product, regardless of whether the caffeine comes from coffee or another source," Cronin said.
Frito-Lay, a division of PepsiCo. Inc., said the company's new coffee toffee will be marketed to adults exclusively, with the presence of both coffee and caffeine clearly called out on both the front and back of the package, and the brand's iconic boy-and-dog logo featured against a black background to avoid any confusion with their kid's lines.
But consumer advocate Cronin said, "Even if the company intends to market the product to adults, the Cracker Jack brand is one that children have a long attraction to."
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has also noted what it characterizes as a troubling trend by food marketers to add caffeine to an ever-expanding list of products. Some high-profile examples include The Kraft Foods Group's enhanced Mio water drink with the caffeine equivalent of 12 to18 cups of coffee in each bottle and Jelly Belly's Extreme Sport Beans, which are infused with 50 milligrams of caffeine in each 100-calorie pack.
Center for Science Executive Director Michael Jacobson expressed concern that caffeine might be "added to ever-more improbable drinks and snacks, putting children, unsuspecting pregnant women, and others at risk. How soon before we have caffeinated burgers, burritos or breakfast cereals?"
The group's position is that caffeine is a mildly addictive stimulant drug with side effects including anxiety, restlessness, irritability, excitability and insomnia. When consumed in high dosages, it holds dangers that can't be overstated for people of all ages.
Just today, Cronin noted, the FDA said it has received reports of 13 deaths in the past four years that might implicate the highly caffeinated energy shot, 5-Hour Energy Drink.
"Most parents don't let their young children consume coffee," Cronin said. "Parents shouldn't expect to find caffeine in jelly beans, potato chips, or other foods, especially given the recent deaths."