Sleep is hot. The food industry is taking notice.
Half of Americans have a tough time falling asleep, studies show, and the American Psychological Association reports a surge in sleep disorders since the pandemic, with 2 in 3 Americans sleeping too much or too little. Food manufacturers have taken note, keeping an eye on the global sleep aids market, valued at nearly $60 million in 2020, with anticipated to reach close to $112 million by 2030.
Enter: sleep friendly nighttime snacks, such as chocolate, cereal, ice cream, drinks, and more. While some studies show snacking before bed isn’t all that good for you, increasing the likelihood of sleep disruptions — manufacturers are walking this tricky line and developing and marketing products that tout sleep health.
“Humans are hardwired to store excess calories as it gets closer to bedtime. Cravings for calorie dense foods peak at night as does overall appetite. Willpower weakens. It’s a perfect storm, and it traps hundreds of millions of us every week,” said Sean Folkson, CEO of Minneapolis-based Nightfood. “The global food and beverage companies are well aware of all this, and I think they expect a massive category to develop around nighttime snacking, but they’re just not sure how or when.”
Folkson points to examples, such as Post’s new nighttime cereal Sweet Dreams, Nestlé’s Good Night chocolate, and Pepsi’s Driftwell. “Our company just announced the launch of a ‘proof-of-concept’ test with Nestlé START and CO. out of Portugal,” he said.
Finding the right sleep-inducing ingredients
Chris Peruzzi, founder, formulator and COO of Denver-based The Functional Chocolate Company, had been combining natural products with chocolate bars to improve quality of life for his children. His kids suffered from menstrual-related concerns, along with stress and anxiety, while he describes himself as someone with insomnia. Now, Sleepy Chocolate is their best-selling product, with ingredients, such as PharmaGaba, chamomile, passionflower, and others.
“Customers regularly tell us that it has replaced their isolated melatonin supplement or pharmaceutical sleep aides,” Peruzzi said, adding the company chose chocolate because people would prefer eating that over a pill or supplement.
One industry challenge Peruzzi faced in creating a food for sleep was taste. “Some of the ingredients we work with, like valerian root, are simply unpalatable,” he said. “It took some creative food science to work with herbal ingredients like this and get the taste profile just right.”
The million dollar question for these manufacturers is sorting through sometimes contradictory studies on what really does promote better sleep. Stephanie Lauri, a registered dietitian at Grow by Nutrition LLC in Thousand Oaks, California, said: “A tryptophan rich diet found in foods like whole milk, turkey, chicken, canned tuna, oats, cheddar cheese, peanuts, montmorency tart cherry or tart cherry juice, and certain seafood like zinc rich oysters may help improve sleep. Based on several studies, kiwifruit is a source of serotonin and eating two kiwi fruits 1 hour before bed improved serotonin levels and helped increase sleep time and quality.”
Other studies have shown rice bran to improve sleep, the more obvious melatonin to help with both falling and staying asleep, and promising research on Vitamin D’s role in sleep, all of which can be integrated into foods.
Not a quick fix, but an area with wildly growing interest
“I have definitely seen more foods lately that imply that they may help with sleep health.Clearly, more people are looking towards sleep improvement as a way to improve their overall health and wellbeing,” said Dr. Michael Grandner, Ph. D., director of the sleep and health research program at the University of Arizona. “And they are looking to foods as functional strategies that may be healthy approaches to achieve this.”
Grandner said the “dramatic increase” in published data showing all the ways sleep health matters to overall health is part of the reason. But, he warns consumers and companies that this won’t be a quick fix for a widespread sleep issue.
“If you are looking to foods to try to fix a sleep problem, you will likely be disappointed,” Grandner said. “Still, I do make recommendations, such as avoiding too much caloric intake at night, keeping nighttime food consumption to foods with relatively higher protein and fiber versus sugar and fat, and avoiding foods that will contribute to reflux, digestive issues, etc.”
In spite of this, food manufacturers will continue to produce and promote products for the nighttime snacker, looking for the right fix. Folkson said companies want “in the slot between dinner and bed.”