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Can this “sleep-friendly” ice cream really help you catch more zzzs?

NightFood’s new line of soporific frozen confections aims to crack the $50 billion nighttime snack market. We try out the latest in functional food.

Can this “sleep-friendly” ice cream really help you catch more zzzs?
[Photo: courtesy of Nightfood]

When that midnight craving hits, you’re not reaching for baby carrots or a handful of almonds. You’re more than likely grabbing the good stuff: Cocoa Puffs, Oreos, or that seductive pint of Häagen-Dazs chocolate chip cookie dough.

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A recent survey found that more than half of Americans consider ice cream an evening snack, with an additional quarter classifying it a late-night indulgence. Ice cream was named the second most popular night snack choice, according to research firm Mintel.

The truth is, all that fat and sugar right before bed is actually disruptive to catching those zzzs. But since some traditions are not to be messed with, what if we could tweak that frozen wonder to make it a little bit less taxing on one’s body?

That’s the premise of functional food startup Nightfood’s line of what it calls “sleep-friendly” ice cream. Launching in February, the brand says its confections will complement the human sleep cycle.

The $4.99 pints, the company says, have a balance of fiber, protein, and (less) sugar, which its scientific advisors (sleep experts Michael Breus and Michael Grandner along with nutritionist and sleep therapist Lauren Broch) helped formulate. Ingredients include a protein that’s relatively low in lactose, as well as minerals, amino acids, and enzymes they say aid sleep and reduce acid reflux.

Nightfood comes in eight tried-and-true flavors like chocolate, vanilla, chocolate chip cookie dough, and decaf coffee, all tailored to promote better rest. The Cherry Eclipse flavor, for example, relies on a specific type of cherry that’s naturally highest in melatonin. Other products are made from Chocamine, a cocoa-based ingredient that tastes just like the real thing but without the caffeine kick.

“We looked at everything through the prism of sleep,” founder Sean Folkson tells Fast Company. “It’s not about, like, dropping an Ambien or some sleep aid into the product; it’s about making ice cream in a way that’s less disruptive.”

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[Photo: courtesy of Nightfood]

A functional solution?

Nearly two decades ago, Folkson read Body for Life by Bill Phillips, and was sold on the author’s diet plan: six small meals a day in lieu of three big ones.

The plan worked well for Folkson, save for one area: He couldn’t fall asleep like he used to because his last, late-night mini meal upset his stomach. The entrepreneur assumed there would be some sort of sleep-friendly nutrition bar since there were bars for everything, from pregnancy to exercise, but there wasn’t.

Sleep deprivation was also increasingly being labeled a public health epidemic—more than a third of us do not enough get enough, reports the CDC. And nutrition was partly to blame.

“It was that time that I really got the idea,” reflects Folkson, who was then president of Specialty Equipment Direct, a wholesale construction device distributor. In 2010, Nightfood launched with those nutrition bars ($23.99 for a 12-pack) he was looking for.

Now, Folkson thinks the $50 billion nighttime snack market—and the larger $300 billion global functional food sector—is ready for his soporific frozen treats. (Functional refers to foods that possess a positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition.) With Nightfood, says Folkson, “we’re allowing people to stay within their format and switch out to something that tastes great.”

In an informal Nightfood poll of 300 consumers, 80% said they consume ice cream between dinner and bedtime. According to market research company IRI Worldwide, 44% of snack consumption occurs at night, representing over $1 billion spent weekly on nighttime snacks.

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Folkson is quick to point out that his brand isn’t necessarily advocating late-night sugary snacks; rather, if it’s already happening, might as well make it more agreeable to the digestive system.

“I don’t think there’s anybody that thinks, ‘Oh, this is exactly what a sleep expert or nutrition expert would tell me to do,” Folkson says. “There’s that understanding of, well, maybe that’s not the best.”

When niche goes mainstream

Bedtime ice cream is undoubtedly intriguing, but are consumers willing to ditch their premium brands for it? Folkson thinks yes: “There’s nobody out there that wouldn’t want to feel like they got an extra 10 or 15 minutes of sleep,” he says. He compares his product to when Vicks launched NyQuil: Why not opt for a product that also suits your sleep schedule?


Related: Imagine a better future of food now


But not all people suffer drawbacks from late-night snacking rituals. I tried out Nightfood, along with my Ben & Jerry’s for six late nights. Nightfood was as tasty as its competitor, if perhaps a bit less creamy, but neither had any discernible effect on my sleep. Granted, I have a relatively strong tummy, but I am one of the consumers that would need to see a definitive change in sleep patterns to justify a brand swap.

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Nightfood could have taken their goal—better sleep—one step further and added melatonin or CBD, but that would put in an entirely different category altogether.

“You would niche yourself out because now you’re putting stuff in—then people are going to feel like they’re making a [bigger] decision,” explains Folkson.

However, if the functional food market continues at its pace, Nightfood might land with a growing audience that increasingly prefers vitamin- or wellness-enriched products. It joins hundreds of companies looking to satiate wellness-obsessed consumers. There are now energy waffles, “healthy wine,” probiotic cereal, among other new products.

And the wild success of better-for-you, lower-calorie Halo Top ice cream, notes Folkson, demonstrates consumers’ desire for more guilt-free food offerings and willingness to switch brands. (Halo Top boasts $342.2 million in annual sales.)

There’s no doubt the American public now looks for healthier snack ingredients. Mintel reports that the $40 billion conventional snacking market declined 2% annually over the past three years, while “health and wellness” snacking grew 6% annually.

“Consumers are willing to switch if they feel there’s something better out there,” says Folkson. Nightfood recently ran Facebook ads reaching 40,0000 of the platform’s users. The clickthrough rate topped 10%. The high number, reflects Folkson, proves that night-friendly treats “is a pretty compelling concept for some people.”

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[Photo: courtesy of Nightfood]

A sleep-friendly empire

Nightfood will be available for purchase online, but the company is also focusing on getting it into grocery store freezers. It says it has already secured a contract with one of the “largest supermarket chains in the country”—but would not say which one.

As for marketing, Folkson looks to social media savvy brands like RXBAR and, of course, Halo Top. Nightfood has an ambitious influencer network heavily reliant on athletes: NFL stars Tyler Eifert of the Bengals and Jarvis “Juice” Landry of the Browns, Chicago Bulls’ Bobby Portis, and professional golfers Rocco Mediate and Angela Stanford, among others.

More Nightfood ice-cream flavors as well as novelty products (much like a Klondike bar) are already in the works. But that’s just stage one of what Nightfood plans to build.

According to its internal research, the most popular late snacks are cookies, ice cream, chips, and candy, in that order. Down the line, it plans to reimagine all of them, perhaps even pursue another tried-and-true midnight staple–cereal and milk.

As Folkson holds, sleep-friendly will transform into a whole product movement, much like we saw with low-carb and gluten-free.

“It’s not about insomniacs. It’s not about people that perceive that they have an acute problem,” says Folkson. “It’s about all the people out there that just kind of wish they could sleep a little bit better.”

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