One of the first things you notice after opening a jar of Coco Loko is that it looks like hot chocolate mix. Snorting a line of the brown powder with specks of white confirms its familiar flavor, followed by a rush of energy.
Americans are beginning to see the product alongside candy bars and energy pills at local shops as the Florida company Legal Lean moves to take a European club-drug trend mainstream.
"I can see it taking off, as long as it doesn't get too controversial," says Nick Anderson, director of marketing for the five-person Orlando company. "We feel like we're cutting edge in what we're doing."
Snorting chocolate has received significant international attention since 2007, when Belgian chocolatier Dominique Persoonecreated a device he calls the Chocolate Shooter to snort cocoa (not cacao) powder. Health conscious European clubgoers separately use raw cacao in pills and drinks for its mildly euphoric, energizing effects.
Coco Loko uses cacao, which is a processed at a lower heat than cocoa, retaining more beneficial nutrients. Raw cacao is hailed as a superfood full of mood-lifting anandamide and phenylethylamine, cognition-assisting flavonoids and muscle-relaxing magnesium.
Cacao can be purchased on Amazon.com or in a Walmart. Until now, however, powder specifically intended for snorting has not been a mass-market product in the U.S.
Coco Loko is cut to enhance cacao's effects. The label lists B vitamins, ginkgo biloba, blood flow-improving amino acid L-Arginine and the energy drink stimulants guarana and taurine.
"It hits you quicker when you snort it," Anderson says, though it also can be made into drinks.
The small round containers of Coco Loko, which have a list price of $24.99, hold 10 servings, according to the label. But even a small amount has a noticeable effect.
"It's gotten really good reviews. It's like having a lot of chocolate without the calories," says a leader of a large alcohol distribution company that's helping with sales. He asked not to be named because beverages are the firm's primary business.
Already, the recently launched product is found in a few convenience stores and dozens of head shops, building on Legal Lean's distribution network for sedating "sipping syrup" popular among young hip-hop fans and products infused with the non-psychoactive cannabis compound cannabidiol (CBD).
Anderson says some stores allow literature to do the talking about chocolate-snorting for fear of potential liability if consumers claim sinus problems.
Dr. Andrew Lane, director of rhinology and sinus surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, however, says he is "not aware of any studies showing harm from inhaling any of these ingredients, nor any scientific evidence that there is a benefit," specifically addressing inhalation of cacao, taurine and guarana.
"The length of time using cacao powder doesn't necessarily change the health consequences (or lack thereof), although a high concentration of powder at high frequency may be more likely to cause a concretion to form," Lane says in an email.
Such a concretion caused by the powder turning into a solid mass "might be hard to dislodge and become a nidus for infection or sinus blockage."
"In theory, putting anything in the nose could cause irritation/inflammation and possibly lead to bothersome symptoms – sneezing, stuffiness, drainage, maybe pain/pressure," Lane adds.
Lane downplays recent concern about maggots living in sinuses as a result of children inhaling Smarties. He says a person would need to inhale insect eggs and that "even then, it would be unlikely to not get swallowed or blown out before turning into a maggot."
Last year, spokespeople for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration told U.S. News the agencies are unable to regulate snortable chocolate. The DEA said it only regulates controlled substances, and the FDA said it only regulates food if it's marketed for customary consumption.
Charlie, the co-owner of a five-store chain of head shops in Orlando called Up in Smoke, says Coco Loko has been catching on. He estimates he has sold more than 200 containers sold to customers of various ages and races.
"It's been all different people," says Charlie, who asked that his last name not be printed. "I have a lot of repeat customers who like it. There have been some people unexpected who have heard of it – older women surprise me sometimes."
Anderson says the company has big plans for expansion and is working with distributors in the Midwest and across the South, in addition to making direct sales to stores.
The cost is less than the Belgian Chocolate Shooter, which can be purchased online for about $50 with powders, with the price of shipping more than doubling costs. As of last year, no U.S. shops carried the item.
The price probably is high enough, however, to keep the product from landing in every teenager's pocket.
The distributor working closely with Anderson say convenience stores generally have difficulty selling items for more than $15, meaning Coco Loko may see sales more similar to premium products like tobacco snuff than cans of Red Bull.
Copyright 2017 U.S. News & World Report