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Taste Test: "Downer" Drinks and Lazy Cakes

In the first of our new taste test series, Sarah Rich samples a soda and brownie from the growing assortment of "downer" foods and beverages.

The first report in our new Taste Test series is by the intrepid Sarah Rich, who volunteered to kick back with a soda and brownie from the growing assortment of "downer" foods and beverages. Put down your coffee, curl up somewhere comfy, and read her report...

I'm feeling very relaxed. It could be because it's Sunday and the sun is setting and I just took a hot shower, but I think it's probably because I just drank a Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda.

The caffeine-free cola is among several new food and beverage brands forming an ad hoc coalition against the energy drink craze. The primary active ingredient in Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda is kava, an herb related to pepper that has been used medicinally in the South Pacific for generations. Of course, the name of the product is suggestive of another kind of herb, and as we all know, the power of suggestion in marketing is sometimes all you need.

According to Matt Moody, the company founder, he started out by brewing kava soda in his house for friends. "They all compared it to the effects of smoking marijuana," he says. Moody emphasizes that the goal of the soda is not to make people sleepy, just calm. "Energy is energy, but relaxation can be a few different things. Mary Jane's [creates] a calm, slowed-down feeling." The beverage does not contain melatonin, which would be the typical ingredient for a product developed to aid in sleep.

According to the product website, Mary Jane's promises to deliver "euphoric relaxation and focus" and "a calming sensation…throughout the body and mind," though both of those statements are followed by their own individual asterisk directing the consumer to the disclaimer stating that the FDA has not evaluated the claims. However, the National Institutes of Health has evaluated kava. They found that while it is commonly used to help sufferers of insomnia, anxiety, asthma, and menopausal symptoms, it has also been reported that "long-term and/or heavy use of kava may result in scaly, yellowed skin." But coffee causes yellowed teeth so…choose your poison.

Just in case I started to get the munchies, I stocked up on snacks: an entire case of Original Lazy Cakes Relaxation Brownies. With a label design that seems targeted toward the low-brow head shop crowd, Lazy Cake advertises there's "Relaxation baked in!" (emphasis on "baked"). Unlike Mary Jane's, the individually-wrapped brownies do contain melatonin, as well as valerian root, and passion flower—the kinds of ingredients you find in sleep-inducing teas and tinctures in natural food stores.

I discovered Lazy Cakes a few weeks ago when John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and perhaps the most insatiably curious southerner in the culinary world, tweeted about them:

Bought Lazy Cakes, so-called 'relaxation brownie,' at conv store, Florence, AL. Clerk sez, 'Supposed to have pot in it. Don't eat 'n drive.'


I promptly ordered a whole case, which came packed in the type of dispenser box you'd find on a bodega counter—an impulse buy product for people who aspire to be too chilled out for impulsive behavior.

At the Lazy Cakes product website, there's certainly no corroboration of the convenience store clerk's claim. In fact, the company told me, "We hope this was an isolated incident as we would not want consumers to think there are illegal ingredients in our product." Nevertheless, they're leveraging language, color, and font treatments to suggest in every other way that Lazy Cakes will make you feel something along the lines of stoned.

The taste and texture of a Lazy Cake is approximately on par with the mediocre just-add-an-egg boxed brownie. Partially hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil likely contributes to the preservation of the cake's moistness in the packaging, although after leaving an unwrapped brownie out overnight, it felt more akin to volcanic rock.

So....the moment of truth: Did Mary Jane's Relaxing Soda and The Original Lazy Cakes Relaxation Brownies live up to their—stated or implied—brand promise?

Well, I did not find the brownie to have a noticeably mind-altering effect, though I did feel sick to my stomach not long after eating it, which made me hesitate to continue making my way through the dozen in my pantry. But I was happy to crack open another soda to wash it down. And then I went to sleep.

I suspect that the placebo effect and the power of marketing both have much to do with the perceived benefits of both products. Certainly, neither is going to replace your medical marijuana prescription (or other source) any time soon. But for excitable tweens, ironic hipsters, or suggestible insomniacs, these "downer" treats, with their strict warning against operating heavy machinery, might just do the trick.

Sarah Rich is a writer, editor, and new media entrepreneur. She is a co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, a former senior editor at Dwell, and co-author of Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.

Images: Downer dinner, photo by Sarah Rich; Samoan ladies preparing and serving kava, via; and a screen grab of Lazy Cakes' website.

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