What makes a snack a snack? I’m not trying to prompt a “what makes a sandwich a sandwich” debate but let’s sit with it a little. Is a snack solely finger food? Does it need to be sweet? Salty? Must it be in small portions? I think most would agree that chips are snacks but what about ice cream? Is that more of a dessert, and is a dessert a snack, or vice versa?
I come from a snacking culture. And before you say, “Jenn, the US is filled with chips and candy,” let me elaborate. When I was a kid, we’d fly back to visit my extended family in Taiwan every few years, bringing along empty suitcases. On the return flight, we would check one large, expandable piece of luggage stuffed to the brim with snacks and other assorted food. These snacks ranged from lightly sweet to savory and set my baseline for what a snack could be. My childhood snacks weren’t only packaged goods or peanut butter on celery sticks. Snacks included fruit, boiled peanuts paired with oolong tea, dried squid, and dried and salted plums.
This story started with me wanting a snack, which is nothing new. I inhale chips like I’m not on the verge of having high cholesterol (I actually did get too close one year and had to cut back on my chip intake). But being isolated and stuck indoors makes you think about funny things, like wondering about flavored snacks and more specifically, coffee snacks.
What makes a snack taste like coffee? What does the development of a coffee-flavored snack look like?
For these answers, I turned to science. Specifically to a flavorist at Synergy Flavors, a company whose sole purpose is to create flavors, extracts, and essences for food companies to use. Once the customer has provided the flavor brief, it’s time for the flavorist to get to work.
Senior Flavor Chemist Archana Khangaonkar explains, “The basis for new flavor development is really a blend of art and science.” Because base and flavor ingredients interact differently with different combinations, the flavorist’s job is “to understand how the ingredients interact and why they interact,” she tells me. “And what would be the impact of flavor on the finished product, aroma, texture, and shelf life.”
In terms of coffee, while there are hundreds of chemicals that create coffee the flavor, only 15–30 aroma chemicals are usually used for the final formula. “In reality, to develop and commercialize a formula, you have to focus on only a few characterizing materials that are significant for coffee flavor,” Khangaonkar says.
After the flavorist is done with the formulation, the flavor application technologist takes over by applying the flavor over the customer’s base. The two go back and forth until the formula works and then it moves into further stages, like sensory evaluation and testing its performance in production.
Coffee flavoring can be added to anything, including cereal. The new Post-Dunkin’ collaboration cereal combines real Dunkin’ coffee concentrate with a flavor for its final product, says Josh Jans, Brand Manager of Cereal Partnerships at Post Consumer Brands. The mocha latte flavored cereal I reviewed below is a combination of coffee concentrate and chocolate flavoring. For this particular food item, built on real coffee concentrate, the product took about 10 months to develop.
But how much does the “real coffee” part matter when talking about snacks? Is there a huge difference between artificial or natural flavoring? Turns out this is a matter of some conjecture. But one thing is for sure: coffee flavor development has both improved and expanded over recent years.
Jeremy Selwyn, Chief Snacks Officer at Taquitos.net, a website that has reviewed over 9,000 snacks over the course of two decades, says that it doesn’t matter to him. What really matters is taste. “It’s amazing how well some snacks manage to match their intended taste without using ingredients that have anything to do with it,” he says. Any food item that does this is a success in a flavorist’s book.
But a title like “Chief Snacks Officer” doesn't make Selwyn the last word on coffee snacks. As a snack lover myself, I decided to dive in to the world of coffee-flavored snacks as part of researching this piece. And while I couldn’t find the infamous cappuccino flavored chips from a few years ago, I did find some unconventional (as in not candy or drink) coffee snacks to try out.
The following reviews are absolutely biased, and here are my biases: I have more of a savory tooth than a sweet one, I’m lactose intolerant (but I love dairy), I have generally had poor experiences with coffee-flavored food (despite being deeply curious about it), and I consider myself pretty open to all kinds of food textures. The criteria for the following reviews are based on snackability (Easy to snack on, doesn’t fill you up) and taste (Is it good? Accurate to a coffee taste?).
Coffee Snacks Reviewed
One of two collaborative cereal flavors with Post Consumer Brands, you definitely get the chocolate-coffee taste at the first bite. It’s a little like cocoa puffs if you dialed back the chocolate and added some coffee. The marshmallows threw me off, since I was expecting the Lucky Charms kind of texture but instead got a soft and chewy one. The lingering aftertaste is certainly mocha forward and the flavoring lived up to what Josh Jans at Post said it was supposed to resemble. He explains, “We were looking to evoke the rich, smooth and creamy taste that people, especially Dunkin’ fans and those who love sweet coffee drinks, experience when they indulge in a Caramel Macchiato or a Mocha Latte.”
When I was a kid, the Lotte Koala cookies were the ultimate treat, as they tended to be more expensive than other snacks. This limited-edition flavor is caramel latte and it did not disappoint. Not only do they still have the adorable koalas printed on the front but the texture combination of the cookie snap and the milky caramel inside was just right. Not too sweet and very snackable.
I regret not reading the description closely enough, especially the brand name. This German delight, Baumkuchen, is a pastry with thin cake layers and coated all over in a bourbon coffee glaze. It’s soft, the layers are airy, and there’s a small hint of coffee. However, after a few seconds, you’ll recognize the bourbon flavor that completely takes over the taste experience, which was not pleasant for someone who doesn’t like bourbon. It’s a sweet treat and might be great for a bourbon-coffee-pastry lover.
Some would argue that peanut butter is not a snack, but I disagree. A spoonful of nut butter absolutely satisfies my snacking desires. When I first opened it up this jar, I was hesitant. It’s chunky—really chunky—replete with peanuts, cacao nibs, and coffee beans. But one small spoonful convinced me that it was worth keeping around. The flavors are balanced perfectly, the texture is more crunchy than spreadable, but it would be most excellent paired with any small snack that needs a flavor boost.
Japan Confectionery Co. Fukairi Coffee Konnyaku Jelly
I picked this one off the shelf of a Japanese grocery store in San Francisco, where I live. It was the only coffee jelly I could find and I wasn’t really sure if I had to make it myself. They come packaged in square, single-serving sized pouches. The instructions direct you to “never swallow before chewing,” which is always a good reminder to have. You squeeze and eat it, little by little.
I loved it. It’s smooth in texture but can be easily broken apart to be served with some iced milk tea or topped with whipped cream. The pouches make the snacking very easy. You can buy coffee jelly online, in a mix, or make your own from scratch.
This was a pleasant surprise. It’s lightly sweetened with the macadamia nut and has a nice, crisp snap. There’s no overpowering of flavors so I was able to eat the whole cookie. Unfortunately, I wasn’t getting any coffee flavor in it but that’s easily fixed if you top it off with the Eliot's espresso nib peanut butter.
The fact that I picked this up at a discount grocery store should have tipped me off. It has the standard yogurt texture and that’s where it stops being pleasant. The aftertaste resembled a pod coffee brewed in a hotel coffee maker that hadn’t been cleaned in a long while.
So what’s next on the snacking horizon? More adventurous flavors are my hope and Jeremy Selwyn, the snacks blogger, agrees. “Where it used to be sufficient to have Barbecue or Sour Cream & Onion flavors,” he tells me, “we see more and more things like the Italian Hoagie Flavored Potato Chips from Whole Foods, the Lay’s take on Nashville Hot Chicken or O’Donnells of Tipperary Ballymaloe Relish and Cheddar Cheese Crisps.” Cortado crisps and Mocha Cheetos can't be far off.
The moral of this story is clear: Jenn can have a coffee snack, as a treat. I really need to advise, though, that you don’t eat too many in one sitting or all together as I did. I love coffee and I love snacks but sometimes they’re just both better on their own.