A Place Sweeter Than Sweetness Itself: The 2011 Sweets & Snacks Expo

Though we complain fiercely about the winter weather in Chicago, there's plenty to keep us here: three beautiful summer months, incredible culture and architecture, the greatest collection of restaurants in America... and the yearly Sweets & Snacks Expo, the trade show of the National Confectioners Association. It's a massive gathering—at massive McCormick Place—that brings together exhibitors, sales reps, executives, and buyers from the candy and snack industries for three days of sugar-filled (and occasionally sugar-free) bacchanalia. (We totally heard a guy in a suit say he was a better singer than Lady Gaga.)

For journalists, unencumbered by the need to actually buy or sell anything, the SSE (@sweetsandsnacks on Twitter) is a lot like Halloween. Every exhibitor represents a house (or in the case of the big companies, like M&M/Mars, an apartment building): Some you can't wait to revisit, because they had all the great new stuff last year, while some are just selling shelving units. (Okay, that analogy doesn't quite hold.) In any case, we always come back from the event with bags full of samples—including plenty of new products. Here, we'll run down a bunch of the new stuff, and provide you with some pictures of Josh posing with various Sweets & Snacks Expo mascots.

Milk Chocolate Dipped Marshmallow PeepsLast year, we were introduced to chocolate-covered Peeps, which were basically glorified versions of those chocolate-covered marshmallow treats you see at Walgreens around every holiday. Covering the Peep entirely in chocolate (and changing its iconic shape!) didn't make for a winning combination, so the smart peeps at Just Born decided to simply dip their little chicks' bottoms into real milk chocolate—far better than the chocolate coating on last year's model. These are a winner.

Jelly Belly Chocolate Dips and Peas & CarrotsIn similarly diptastic news, Jelly Belly has introduced a line of beans coated in real dark chocolate. The flavors currently available include cherry, orange, coconut, and strawberry, with mint rolling out in July. If you're a fan of fruit and chocolate combinations, the cherry ones—technically Very Cherry—are delicious. Mint and chocolate together isn't too special, but they're still tasty, and the chocolate itself is solid. A strange innovation from Jelly Belly this year was Peas & Carrots, which is chewy candy shaped like, yes, peas and carrots. The carrots are orange-sherbet flavored, while the peas are green apple. Neither is particularly tasty, and the whole thing is a little strange. The other Jelly Belly flavor being touted this year was Candy Corn—we aren't sure that's new, but these jelly beans do taste pretty much exactly like candy corn, just a bit chewier.

Dove Raspberry And Dark Chocolate Promises, Cherry Swirl Promises, and Coconut Crème EggsYou can count on Dove to introduce a new flavor of bite-sized Promises most years, and we're pretty sure all the ones we got this year debuted recently. The reps claimed the Coconut Crème Eggs aren't coming out until Easter 2012, though other candy blogs say they debuted at Easter this year. One way or another, they're really good—there's coconut oil in the smooth center, so they taste authentic, with the flavor extending through the chocolate as well as the coconut middle. Cherry Swirl is much less authentic, with a powerful shot of what tastes like cherry liqueur inside—but they're still delicious. Raspberry is maybe a little too subtle, especially for a piece of chocolate so very, very swirly-looking.

Big League Original Beef JerkyRemember Big League Chew, the shredded gum designed to look like chewing tobacco? (These sorts of things were more common in the '80s, though BLC continues to sell today.) Somebody thought gum wasn't the only thing that made sense in a tobacco pouch, thus: Big League Original Beef Jerky. It's described as "shredded" and "easier to chew," which makes us wonder what the original formula was like. Each pouch contains 2 ounces of jerky, which should be enough to keep you content until it's your turn at bat. At 140 calories for the whole pouch, it doesn't seem so bad—until you look at the amount of sodium. Holy cow, as a great baseball announcer used to say. And the taste? Pretty standard jerky, really. But shredded!

Ghirardelli Sea Salt SoireeOver the past few years, as chocolatiers craved new ways to repackage their delicious, delicious product, they seemingly all turned to one source: sea salt. What began as a light dusting on some high-end caramels turned into an avalanche of salty candy. The stuff is inescapable on the floor of McCormick Place, including the stylish (though sterile) Ghirardelli booth, where a tastefully dressed woman handed out squares of Sea Salt Soiree for the company's Intense Dark line. The new variety mixes dark chocolate with sea salt and bits of roasted almonds. It's understated, flavorful, and not terribly intense, in spite of the branding. Maybe we should pair it with something; over at the Ghirardelli website, the company recommends tequila, shiraz, or sweeter black or brown beers like a porter or stout.

Lindt Nut BarsThe latest from Lindt is two new 70% cocoa bars from the "intense dark" Excellence line: "Nut Crunch" features caramelized walnut and hazelnut pieces, while "Almond Brittle" is exactly what it sounds like. Both are rich, smooth bars with a generous proportion of nut pieces throughout, and both are pretty predictably delicious. Neither bar will win an innovation award, and neither will the website, which also suggests shiraz and zinfandel pairings. On the other hand, classics don't need innovation, and candy doesn't get much more classic than chocolate and nuts.

7 Days Soft CroissantChocolate croissants are the domain of bakeries and coffee shops, not shitty corner convenience stores that specialize in Flamin' Hot Cheetos. No more, if the new 7 Days croissant series by Greek food company Vivartia takes off. In packaging that resembles honey buns or other bodega breakfast items, the croissants have vanilla or chocolate cream (the chocolate tastes like pudding) baked into a soft, preservative-laced croissant. The chocolate variety we tried was tasty, but in a "clearly bad for you" way. Flip the package over, and you'll see that the croissant packs a staggering 12 grams of saturated fat (that's 60 percent of your recommended daily allowance) and 22 grams of fat overall. Of its 330 calories, 190 come from fat. Enjoy, then plan to spend some serious time on the treadmill.

Gimme Enhanced Chocolate Candies with Omega 3, Calcium, Vitamin D, and ProbioticsThe guy at the Brightspot Brands booth—home of enriched candy products—gave us a serious pitch about the future of candy, claiming that all the major brands were trying to develop products with added nutritional value. Brightspot's Gimme brands include chocolate drops with added omega 3, calcium, and probiotics. Before tasting the omega 3 drops, we asked whether the taste of the added flax—which provides the nutrition—was obvious. His answer: "A little." Real answer: We could. It's a great idea, but it might have a ways to go in the taste department. The only one that was actually tasty enough to eat on its own was the Vitamin D3 version, with 64 percent chocolate.

Herr's Baby Back Ribs, Kansas City Prime Steak, and Hot Sauce Potato ChipsWe weren't expecting much from this latest batch of flavored chips from Herr's, but all three of these flavors were actually really solid: They don't fall into the generic, interchangeable chip flavors we so often see. (For instance, every new Pringles flavor.) The steak chips were the least flavorful, but still good—a bit of char-flavor, almost. The ribs chips were super-sweet and bold. And the hot sauce—made with Texas Pete sauce, apparently—were actually markedly spicy and delicious. They're no Death Rain, but what is?

Hershey's Air DelightThe product Hershey's was pimping hardest this year was the Air Delight—"aerated milk chocolate" available both in a 1.44 ounce bar and as Kisses. As you might guess, the not-so-secret ingredient is air. Both the bar and the kisses are basically just lighter versions of these confections' long-running counterparts. Air Delight Hershey's certainly goes down easier than a regular Hershey bar or Hershey's Kiss, so that's nice. But the taste is exactly the same, and the texture is a little unpleasant—flaky and dry, not like an Aero bar so much as like chocolate that's been melted at too high a temperature, then cooled until it re-congeals. But hey, it tastes like chocolate. Nothing to complain about there.

Berry Burst Ice Cream OreosThe new Oreo Triple Doubles—with three cookies housing one layer of chocolate filling and one of vanilla—were nowhere to be found at the Expo, but we did manage to snag a bag of the new Berry Burst Ice Cream flavor. The name is a little misleading, because these aren't a frozen treat: They're standard Oreo wafers with berry-ice-cream-flavored filling. Short review: They're nowhere near as good as the limited-edition Banana Split Crème variety. The flavor really does taste like berry-ish ice cream, but there's a vicious fakey aftertaste, too. Not to echo our Taste Tests too strongly, but these things have a flavor somewhere between Crunchberries and children's cough medicine.

Reese's Minis & Hershey's DropsIt seems Hershey's is following Nestlé's lead (see Butterfinger BBs and Buncha Crunch) by shrinking its popular products into more compact packaging. Reese's Minis land somewhere between the foil-wrapped Reese's Miniatures and the candy-coated Reese's Pieces in terms of size, slightly larger than the ones in Moose Tracks ice cream. The unwrapped Minis get too melty and messy for hand-held snacking, and the pieces are just a little too big to toss a bunch in your mouth at once, but the chocolate-to-peanut-butter ratio is just right, making these taste... just like Reese's cups. Hershey's Drops follow the same concept—giving you less of something you love—by reshaping the standard Hershey's chocolate bar into slightly-larger-than-M&M's-sized discs. There's no candy shell, just a shiny coating to keep the drops from sticking together. It tastes, you guessed it, just like a Hershey's bar, only smaller and rounder.

Sour LoversSour gummi candy is usually a pretty lowbrow affair, but Gimbal's Sour Lovers tries to class up your mouth-puckering by using real fruit juice, ditching the high-fructose corn syrup, and touting the high "antioxidant Vitamin C" content on the bag. That's all well and good—very good, actually, as the gummies themselves are flavorful and nicely textured—but the real draw is the lineup of 12 flavors, which expands upon the usual cherry-orange-lime-lemon spectrum to include Pomegranate, Georgia Peach, Fuji Apple, Mango, Grapefruit, and more. They aren't all winners—Strawberry Daiquiri and Baja Margarita, i.e. strawberry and lime, have weird aftertastes—but there's enough variety here to ensure you won't want to throw the pack away once all the reds are gone.

Lucky Charms Treats Lucky Charms bound together by marshmallow with an extra layer of marshmallow coating the bottom sounds like a recipe for a diabetic coma, but Lucky Charms Treats aren't as sickeningly sweet as they sound, thanks to a healthy ratio of oaty cereal pieces to colorful marshmallow shapes. Oh, don't get us wrong, it's still plenty sweet, but not much more so than a bowl of Lucky Charms, and there's none of that healthy milk crap to interfere with your sugar buzz.

Chex Mix Muddy BuddiesChex Mix finally got around to bagging and selling this party-food staple (sometimes referred to as "puppy chow"), the recipe for which has been printed on boxes of Chex for ages. And as is usually the case with bagged Chex Mix, it isn't as good as the homemade stuff—then again, Chex coated in chocolate, peanut butter, and powdered sugar really can't be bad. If we're being picky, we could point out that there could stand to be more peanut-butter-chocolate-y goodness and less powdered sugar—which is mixed with delicious cornstarch to keep the pieces separate and not overly messy—but come on, it's Muddy Buddies. You're gonna eat the whole bag no matter what, so shut up and start scarfing.

Toblerone Tobelle The news from Toblerone this year wasn't as exciting as it might have been: The big product it was touting was called Tobelle, and it's basically just a standard Toblerone honey/nougat/milk chocolate bar, but in the form of thin, flat, individual triangles instead of a bar made up of thick, chunky ones. No big deal, Toblerone! But we'll forgive it, because the booth was serving up fresh strawberries dipped in hot, melted Toblerone bars, which may have been the most delicious thing on offer at the Expo. And that's saying something.

Lemon Ice and Birthday Cake barsSimilarly, we weren't as impressed as we would have liked to have been with Seattle Chocolates' new Birthday Cake and Lemon Ice bars: The Birthday Cake (milk chocolate over a "confetti cake mix" center, meaning cakey sugar and sprinkles) just had the heavy white-sugar taste of an average sheet cake, while the Lemon Ice (white chocolate suffused with lemon, with crushed lemon drops mixed in) was much tastier, except that even the strong lemonade taste (and the delicious crunchy lemon-candy bits) still can't hide that flat white chocolate flavor. Still, we had to love the Seattle booth, which was doing food pairings: Participants were invited to suck on small chunks of dark or milk chocolate, then progressively add things like white fig, aged gouda, Stilton blue cheese, Marcona almonds, and parmesan in various combinations to see how the flavors developed and brought each other to the fore. It was one of the best proofs of concept at the show, especially since dark chocolate and blue cheese turn out to be shockingly good together.

Sun CupsOne of the bigger surprises at the expo came from a little booth with not much product, representing family-owned business Seth Ellis Chocolatier, out of Boulder, Colorado. It was touting Sun Cups, which look exactly like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, but are made with sunflower butter instead of peanut butter. The rep at the booth explained that he and his brother Seth got into the candy trade because Seth Ellis is allergic to wheat and nuts, and wanted more options for himself. The company also makes chocolate mint cups, caramel cups, and truffle assortments—all organic, kosher, and gluten-free—but the dark-chocolate sunflower cups were the real winner for us. The chocolate is smooth, soft, and richer than what Reese's uses, and the sunflower butter is sweet and nutty, but with a richer, wilder flavor than peanut butter. It's like the haute cuisine, grown-up, after-dark version of Reese's.

Watermelon FudgeThe time we spent at the Calico Cottage booth was particularly enjoyable; we stopped to gawk at the watermelon fudge (colored like a watermelon slice: green on the bottom, pink on top, with chocolate chips on top to represent seeds, and tasting credibly and deliciously of fresh watermelon) and got involved in a conversation with a rep who really seems to love what she does, even though it's a pretty thankless job. Calico Cottage doesn't sell fudge: It sells ingredients, tutorials, and a process to other established companies, who can then produce and sell the fudge as their own handmade, in-house, proprietary product: As she put it, "We put people in the fudge business under their own name." When we asked who their local clients were, the rep couldn't tell us, and she actually giggled to herself over nearly "blowing their cover" by naming names. "Doesn't that make it impossible to get new clients via word of mouth?" we asked. She admitted it does. "You would be excited if you knew who makes our fudge, but I can't tell you," she said. Normally, that kind of statement would sound like empty hype, but there's no arguing with the actual fudge, which came in conventional flavors and also in amazing varieties like raspberry lemonade, cinnamon crumb cake, and chewy praline. If anyone's making and selling the watermelon fudge in the Chicago area, let us know. We won't blow your cover, we just want some more of the stuff.

Nutorious Nut ConfectionsThe All-Candy Expo lost a little of its sugary purity when it became the Sweets & Snacks Expo and opened the door to all manner of plantain chips, wheat pretzels, meat jerkies, dried fruits, and other such comparatively wholesome fare. But after a morning of sugar, we were glad to hit a run of salty and protein-packed products, starting with the flavored nut mixes from Nutorious. They had samples of various bagged snack mixes: Cherry Vanilla Va-Voom and Cranberry Orango Tango were particularly delicious, and the mild spice in Cha Cha Chipotle pleasantly burned some of the chocolate residue off the backs of our throats. The Nutorious mixes have strong fruity flavors, but the ingredient lists are simple: nuts, fruit, sugar, butter, egg whites, and salt, plus flavorings like vanilla extract or orange oil. The downside is that given the mix of nuts and sugar, these mixes are on the calorie-heavy side, but practically everything of worth at the Expo can make the same claim, whereas Nutorious' mixes stood out for being natural, nutrient-rich, and freakin' delicious.

Sahale Seasoned NutsStill, Nutorious better guard its nuts, because the nearby stand for Sahale Snacks had it beat. Sahale already markets a series of bagged glazed nuts and "nut blends." (The Valdosta Pecans nut blend, which consists of pecans, cranberries, black pepper, and orange zest, is particularly tasty.) But at the expo, the reps were showcasing the new Seasoned Nuts line, which includes Barbeque Almonds (tasty and mild, without the overbearing salt or liquid-smoke taste of most barbecue-flavored snack products), Southwest Cashews (chili powder and cheddar, credibly and somewhat startlingly cheesy), and Tuscan Almonds (freaking addictive, at least if you like parmesan, basil, and oregano at all). The ingredient lists aren't as simple as Nutorious', though a rep was quick to point out that Sahale products aren't just gluten-free, they're officially certified gluten-free. More to the point, all three varieties are rich and flavorful without being salty or grainy, and they were so strikingly memorable that we circled back around at the end of the Expo to get our hands on a few more of deez nuts.

Ugli NutsAnd while we're nutting up anyway... The folks at YumNuts are apparently still a ways from market with their Nut Clusters (the only bag of them they had there was a mockup, but the quarter-sized, granola-y clusters were appealingly crispy and surprisingly sweet) and their new product, Ugli Nuts. The rep told us these were "like a naked M&M"—they're roasted nuts with a thin, dry shell applied via a tapioca syrup that cooks off in the process. The end result is very mildly chocolaty, but it doesn't melt in the hands—not unlike a cocoa almond, except they aren't dusty, either. The sweetness on these is so mild that it didn't even trigger a "God, not more sugar" response in our most chocolated-out staffer, so take that as a recommendation, though one you'll have to wait to act on until Ugli Nuts get past the Expo stage. When will that happen? We aren't sure; there's nothing about them on the YumNuts site.

Summer PretzelsSouth Bend Chocolate Company markets its seasonal pretzels as "chocolate covered" without pointing out that it's white chocolate filled with dyes and flavors, so be warned. Still while the Summer Pretzels tasted nothing like chocolate, they were delicious—the white chocolate has almost no flavor profile when it's up against orange and lemon flavoring, which mixes just as well with salt as, y'know, real chocolate. South Bend also makes pretzels for other seasons: We sampled the pumpkin flavor (available September 1, and tasting strongly of pumpkin pie), but there are also seasonally available white-chocolate Christmas pretzels, cherry-flavored Valentine pretzels, and pastel Easter pretzels. (The website doesn't say what those taste like. Eggs, maybe?)

Dark Chocolate Goji BerriesBrookside Foods wasn't actually at the Expo with a new product: It was showcasing a reformulated version of one of its existing products, the goji-berry "fruit juice pieces" covered with dark chocolate. (Their other signature products—which we tasted last year—are much the same, except that the pastilles are made from pomegranate or açai berry.) A rep told us that they'd gotten complaints that the goji-berry confections were too bitter, so they'd sweetened them with raspberry juice; we don't have any of the old ones for comparison, but the new ones are certainly sweet enough, in a tart, citrus-y sharp way that nicely compliments the mild bitterness of the dark chocolate. The whole Brookside line is delicious and addictive, and the other pleasant news we got at the Expo is that these things are available in special ginormous monster bags at Costco. Too much of a good thing? Hell no.

Cheddar Cheese LarvetsRemember when we Taste Tested spiced crickets for your gross-out pleasure? Those came from Hotlix, which had an extensive sample platter out at the Expo, but not many takers. Still, we felt we owed it to the world to try some free cheese-flavored larva, and besides, there was chocolate everywhere around us if we needed to get the taste out of our mouth. Unfortunately, much like flavored crickets, flavored larva taste an awful lot like dust and spice powder. There isn't enough there to really have any kind of taste, unless "the fascinated revulsion of those around you" has a flavor. Still, we walked away with a couple different flavors of worm lollipops, just in case anyone at the office winds up feeling brave and stupid one of these days.

Bonus round:

Twix CoconutStrangely enough, the M&M/Mars area of the Expo—which is massive—didn't feature the new limited-edition Twix Coconut at all. We even asked, only to be rebuffed. But trusty Onion staffer Jun Ueno found us one at Walgreens. It tastes like a Twix, with the tiniest hint of fakey coconut flavor, followed by a strong coconut aftertaste. It isn't bad, but not as good as a regular Twix, that's for sure.

Other noteworthy stuff:

  • Boulder Canyon Natural Foods, which makes thick, premium potato chips, had a new flavor on offer: Red Wine Vinegar Kettle Chips. They were delicious.
  • Something moderately new at the Expo: Many, many small companies hawking many, many varieties of plantain chip, in flavors ranging from natural to super-spicy. Tropical Gourmet's stand had a garlic plantain chip that was particularly good, though all of them tended to be kind of fragmentary, as though the bags got stepped on a few too many times on the way to America.
  • Best new name for a candy/snack company: Everyone Says Good Good Eat. Yes, it is an Asian company. It had some tasty ramen snacky things, as well as super-chewy "soft candy."
  • Speaking of awesome foreign products, a Turkish product called Durukan posits itself as "master of lollipops." "Everlasting Fun! The special delicious taste is just for you. Makes you feel better..." Check out their "anatomy of a premium lollipop."
  • Skinny Cow has branched out from ice-cream treats to candy treats, with crispy little wafer bars and single-serving, 120-calorie baggies of "dreamy clusters." The wafer bars are unfortunately kind of cardboardy (like so many wafer bars), but the dreamy clusters (chocolate-coated caramel and "crunchy crisps") aren't bad. They're basically lower-calorie takes on Turtles.
  • Three Musketeers has a new "richer chocolate taste" with a more cocoa-centered formula. We got full-sized bars of the improved versions in the goodie bags sent to our office on the first day of the Expo, but no one could be inveigled into caring about a more chocolatey version of air-filled nougat. As one staffer put it, "Three Musketeers has always been a bullshit candy."
  • Remember when we taste-tested Lazy Cakes, the brownies meant to put you to sleep? We ended up with enough dozy, miserable staffers that no one was in a real hurry to try Sleep Squares, the "chocolatey" dietary supplement meant to knock you out. They're definitely more "chocolatey" than chocolate: They're about the shape and size of a Starburst, but a little more gluey, and they smell like Tootsie Rolls. We'll leave it to someone who isn't working to find out how well they aid sleep.
  • To the degree that there was an obvious, industry-spanning trend this year, it wasn't a specific ingredient, like last year, when it was salt (salted caramels, salted dark chocolate bars, salted truffles, etc.), or the year before, when everyone seemed to be producing pomegranate-infused bars and fillings. This year, the big trend seemed to be in touting organic ingredients, fair-trade practices, gluten-free and high-fructose-corn-syrup-free products, and short ingredient lists featuring natural, recognizable foods. At least, that was the big selling point for the smaller vendors; it didn't look like Mars, Hershey, Reese's, et. al. were lining up to point to their fair-trade fare. But hey, if you're looking for ethical, sorta-nutritious snacking, your options are apparently about to be wider than ever before. Kinda like our bellies after Expo every year.