It started as a conversation about the perfect sandwich to combat a hangover. Peanut butter and jelly on thick slices of banana bread, the three friends decided. With crispy bacon layered in for crunch.
"A sensory overload," recalled Chris Pettazzoni. "The one missing component was caffeine."
From that lighthearted beginning, Pettazzoni and partners Keith Barnofski and Andrew Brach created Steem caffeinated peanut butter, the latest entry in a growing corner of the food world that has some federal regulators feeling jumpy.
There are caffeinated potato chips, sunflower seeds, gummy bears and beef jerky. You can pour caffeinated maple syrup onto your caffeinated waffles. You can enhance your water with caffeinated flavoring. Wrigley even launched a caffeinated gum a couple years ago before pulling it from the market because of concerns from federal regulators.
Pettazzoni said Steem is intended to be a healthy time saver. The recipe includes only peanut butter, peanut oil, agave nectar and caffeine extracted from green coffee pods. Ideally, he said, it will allow people to skip their morning coffee and get their caffeine fix by spreading Steem on toast or fruit, or eating it straight from the jar.
"We are big proponents for taking it easy on caffeine," Pettazzoni said, noting that he has completely given up coffee for caffeinated peanut butter since the launch of the Massachusetts-based business last year. "Fundamentally, we're one of the safer methods [of caffeine intake]."
Still, Pettazzoni and his partners are aware of federal officials' reservations about the proliferation of caffeine in foods and the potential health effects of increased caffeine intake, particularly in children and adolescents.
In 2013, the Food and Drug Administration asked manufacturers to go easy on introducing new caffeine-laced products. The agency said it planned to examine the need for new rules to regulate caffeine in food.
“It’s a trend that raises real concerns,” Michael Taylor, the FDA’s top food safety official, told the Post at the time. “We’re not here to say that these products are inherently unsafe. We’re trying to understand, what are the right questions to be asking? ... When you start putting [caffeine] in these different products and forms, do we really understand the effects?”
The FDA has long known about small manufacturers such as Steem marketing various caffeinated items. But Taylor said the agency became concerned when giants such as PepsiCo began exploring the caffeinated food market.
Two years later, the FDA has yet to take any action, despite speculation that it eventually may require detailed labeling for caffeine or seek to ban it from some food products. The substance comes with health negatives such as increased risk of miscarriage and insomnia but also, according to studies, health positives such as reduced risk of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.
In the absence of required label content, info from groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest is particularly instructive. A Wired Waffle, for instance, has more caffeine than a grande Caffè Mocha at Starbucks. But then, so do 4 ounces of Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans.
The trio behind Steem hasn't spent much time fretting over the potential for new regulations, and Pettazzoni says the company has tried to operate transparently. It did a nutritional analysis of its peanut butter -- two tablespoons of Steem contains about 170 mg of caffeine, roughly the amount in two cups of coffee -- and submitted its labeling for state approval. "We're trying to go about this through the proper channels and are certainly not hiding anything we are doing," he said.
For now, business is booming. A recent spate of publicity has the tiny company churning out caffeinated peanut butter as fast as it can; 450 orders arrived on a single day last week.
"They just keep coming," Pettazzoni said. "It's been crazy, but in the best way."