There are lots of ways to get a caffeine-induced energy boost: There’s coffee and chocolate, of course, along with soda and energy drinks. Then there are the non-conventional sources of caffeine—energy supplements, gum, mints, edible powders, and even stick-on patches that promise to deliver a jolt when you need it the most.
But even with all that, the newest caffeine craze still has us scratching our heads in disbelief: Coco Loko, a product marketed as “infused raw cacoa snuff,” hit store shelves last month, as reported this week by The Washington Post. That’s right, you can now buy tins of snortable chocolate.
Coco Loko’s creator, Nick Anderson, told The Washington Post that the product is mostly cacao powder—an unprocessed form of chocolate and a naturally occurring source of caffeine—but that it also contains gingko biloba, taurine, and guarana. These three ingredients are also stimulants, and are commonly found in energy drinks.
There’s a lot to take in here (although we don’t mean that literally, because, well, just keep reading), but you may be wondering: Is this even legal? Is it safe? And will it actually give you energy?
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Yes, it’s legal—but here’s the thing: Since it’s not marketed as a food or drug, Coco Loko isn’t subject to approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—much like dietary supplements aren’t. That means there is little oversight, and little guarantee, as to what’s in each package and how it might affect its users.
Paul Arciero, PhD, professor of health and exercise science at Skidmore University, tells Health that the product probably does provide a quick and powerful boost of energy, assuming its advertised ingredients are accurate.
“When you talk about snorting something through the nasal cavity, that’s a very rapid mode of entry—quicker than eating or drinking, which requires some digestion,” says Arciero, who has studied caffeine extensively. “It’s going to give people an acute and immediate buzz and a heightened alertness, but it will also cause a heightened sympathetic nervous response.”
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That’s where the third question—whether it’s safe—comes in. Caffeine can temporarily raise blood pressure and affect heart rate, and can make people feel anxious and jittery. And it is possible to overdose: In May, a South Carolina teenager died from caffeine-induced cardiac problems after drinking a Mountain Dew, a latte, and an energy drink. In 2015, two college students became seriously ill after accidentally consuming too much caffeine during a scientific experiment.
How the body might react to inhaled cacoa powder (which is different than pure caffeine powder) is largely a mystery, Candice Dye, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham tells Health. “My initial reaction is that it just sounds scary and unsafe,” she says. “We don’t know what it is and we don’t really know how the body absorbs it.”
Then there are the physical ramifications of snorting powder up your nose—something else Dr. Dye worries about. While some legitimate medications are given intranasally, those drugs are in the form of a mist, not a solid.
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Andrew Lane, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Sinus Center, told The Washington Post that “as far as I can tell, no one’s studied what happens if you inhale chocolate into your nose.” But he also expressed concern about putting powder into the nasal passages. “You could imagine it getting stuck in there,” he said, “or the chocolate mixing with your mucus to create a paste that could block your sinuses.”
Arciero says there’s also potential for cacao to cause irritation the same way that other stimulants are known to when inhaled. “It could cause a heightened reaction from the nasal membrane, so there might be potential for blood vessels to be aggravated, and for nose bleeds to occur,” he says. “We don’t know because this is fairly new, but I would imagine it’s going to cause some side effects.”
Anderson told The Washington Post that he uses Coco Loko as an alternative to drinking alcohol, and during long car rides and music festivals. But Arciero worries that consumers might begin inhaling cacao powder on top of other forms of caffeine they’re already consuming in their daily life.
“This is a new behavior that people are going to be engaging in, but there’s not really any evidence that they will minimize their other lifestyle behaviors,” he says. “Are they going to be snorting the cocoa in addition to drinking their normal amount of caffeine or taking other stimulants? There’s real potential there for overdoing it.”
Then there’s the that no-government-regulations thing: A spokesperson for the FDA told The Washington Post it had not decided whether, or how, the agency would regulate the product. Last year, both the FDA and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency told U.S. News & World Report that snortable chocolate is outside the scope of what the agencies normally have control over.
For now, that means there is no way to know for sure that what’s on the label is actually what’s in the product—or to know how much of each ingredient is included. “The quantities of each ingredient could even vary from batch to batch,” says Dr. Dye.
Most experts agree that up to 400 mg of caffeine per day, or about four 8-ounce cups of coffee, is safe for adults. Coco Loko’s online store does not include information on the amount of caffeine, or other ingredients, per serving. (Health has not personally examined a container, and an email to the company was not immediately returned.)
Anderson told ABC News that he did not consult any medical professionals while creating the product, and that he was inspired by similar snortable chocolate products for sale in Europe. He also said he believed that a warning on the label—"to not do more than half the container”—should be enough to keep consumers safe. (According to Coco Loko’s parent company, Legal Lean, each tin of powder contains 10 servings.)
Dr. Dye says she’s especially concerned about reports that the product is popular among college campuses, and worries about teenagers using or abusing it. “It’s such a vulnerable time, more of an experimental time, and if something is legal and marketed as 'natural,' it can influence people to take risks that they probably shouldn’t,” she says.
She adds that if anyone—of any age—needs an energy boost badly enough to snort chocolate, they should take a nap or look at their sleep and lifestyle patterns, rather than turning to quick fixes with so many unknown factors. “People should be aware of what they’re putting into their bodies and what the effects might be," she says, "and with this product we simply have no idea.”