The A.V. Club Takes Its Annual Trip To The Sweets & Snacks Expo

Every year, a group of A.V. Club writers descends on the Sweets & Snacks Expo, ready to perform some powerhouse journalism. The trade show—put together by the National Confectioners Association—gathers candy- and snack-makers big and small, assembling them in a giant convention hall, where they battle it out for snack supremacy. The winner: us, because we returned to the office triumphant, with bags full of new things to eat and share. "Hail the conquering heroes," we imagine our co-workers thinking. In reality, it might be more like, "That's not work."

But it is, because we're able to share our bounty—in words and pictures only—with The A.V. Club community. At the 2014 Expo, we saw Grumpy Cat-branded candy, more non-GMO snacks than you could shake a giant beef jerky stick at, some incredibly delicious chocolate, and a slew of mascots, many of whom you can see below. We ate maple-bacon jerky (too powerful), chocolate-orange nibbles (NewTree Chocolate, you are Josh's new hero), and a variety of salty chips. Then we made it back to tell the tale. Below you'll find quick write-ups of some new products we sampled this year, several of which may return for a full treatment in our Taste Test feature.

Chex Chips

It's not obvious what Chex Chips are going to look like from the bag, which doesn't properly convey their chubbiness. The word "chip" implies something flat, but these are basically giant pieces of Rice Chex cereal, coated with some flavor dust. We got the cinnamon and sugar variety, which is markedly sweet, and cheddar jalapeño, which is tasty and actually has a decent bite to it. The tag line on the 1.5-ounce bags reads a little weird: "Giant Chips. No Mix." Which I guess is intended to avoid confusion, but comes off a little aggressive. "No fucking mix in here, okay?" Flavors we didn't get: caramelized onion and wasabi. [Josh Modell]

Kracker Nuts

The snack industry's peanut-cramming compulsion now has unwitting peanuts being crammed into crackers—a foodstuff that wasn't generally considered a cram vessel in the first place. To combat the innate blandness of a cracker coating, Kracker Nuts engineers have pumped their snack's starchy exospheres full of artificial flavoring until standards of human decency and/or federal regulations compelled them to stop. As he semi-willingly handed over bags of his product for further A.V. Club testing, a Kracker Nuts sales representative reflected on each flavor in turn. Jalapeño Cheddar and Chipotle BBQ earned mutterings of approval, a fittingly even-keeled endorsement for what proved to be forgettable flavors. The company man was more enthusiastic about the popular Dill Pickle, whose potent sour-and-salty mix are almost enough to make you forget you're eating balls of beige.

But the Kracker Nuts rep reserved his most heartfelt praise for Sea Salt & Pepper, growing almost mournful as he recounted the public reaction to this particular blend of grade-B nuts and compacted cracker-factory sweepings. "People look at it and just think it's plain," he said, "but I think Sea Salt & Pepper might have the most interesting flavor profile." (This is the industry term for a product's flavors, with the more professional word "profile" standing in for the letter "s.") The guy was right: Kracker Nuts' salt-and-pepper offering is unusual, with an intense wave of black pepper that tapers off just before it becomes overwhelming. [John Teti]

Pillsbury Mini Snickerdoodle and Chocolate Chip cookiesWhile not exactly brand-spanking-new—both have existed since 2013—the little 3-ounce bags of Pillsbury-branded snickerdoodle and chocolate chip cookies were new enough to us. Plus, free cookies! Unfortunately, the cookies didn't exactly live up to our lofty expectations, with both kinds coming off kind of gummy and bland, à la Keebler Soft Batch cookies. That being said, they're still cookies, so we ate all of them. [Marah Eakin]

Juicy Fruit Fruity Chews

Juicy Fruit Fruity Chews have a problematic name. While it's true that you chew gum—nobody denies that—the noun "chews" is for foods that will be swallowed after you chew them. The swallowing is implied, and as a society we have agreed to this, because swallowing is for the privacy of your own dining room. Yet here you have Wrigley attaching "chews" to package of non-ingestible Juicy Fruit. "NEW GUM!" reads a coy message on the labeling, in case the purposely misleading name gave you the wrong idea. The truth: Juicy Fruit Fruity Chews are cylindrical pieces of Juicy Fruit. They also come in a strawberry variety, which does not taste like strawberries, but it tastes more like strawberries than anything else, so that is what appears on the label. A press representative for Wrigley's parent company, Mars, said that with this new line, her company was aiming to "make gum fun again." I asked when, in Mars' estimation, gum stopped being fun. "I like that spirit!" she replied. Well played. [John Teti]

5 Gum "Ascent" flavor/Extra Dessert Delights Cinnamon Roll gumThe always-mysterious 5 Gum keeps trying new mysterious flavors in order to build mystery around some of the biggest secrets around, like gum. With "Ascent," it claims to have created an "escalating wintermint" gum whose flavor builds with time. What voodoo is this? No voodoo, really. Just a minty gum whose flavor lingers. At least it's not Extra's Cinnamon Roll-flavored Dessert Delights gum, whose smell is overpowering and whose taste is horribly unnatural. If your idea of hell is being locked in a Yankee Candle with your mouth forced open, this might be the gum for you. [Josh Modell]

Toxic Waste Goop GumThese tantalizing gross-out candies ("oozing with sour slime!") resemble phalanx-bone-sized barrels, coated with sour yellow. If you bite into it at the right angle, the barrel releases a strong and frankly disgusting flavor, which briefly made this staffer feel like Paul McCrane at the end of Robocop. About 30 seconds of steady chewing turns the Goop into a mildly sour (and not altogether unpleasant) gum. All in all, a good gum with a surprisingly strong initial kick. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Lance Bolds Cracker Sandwiches

Cracker sandwiches are among the least respectable snack foods because it's so easy to make a better version of them yourself. Your average Joe Customer isn't going to whip up his own batch of potato chips or beef jerky. But the recipe for improving on a typical cracker sandwich is simple: While the knife of peanut butter is on its way to your mouth, introduce a cracker. To eat the pre-packaged version of this treat is to admit that, at least for a moment, your sloth outstrips your dignity. So the industry doesn't bother to show cracker-sandwich customers much respect. There are only two kinds of crackers—With Awful Cheese Flavoring and Without Awful Cheese Flavoring But Somehow Just As Bad—and food scientists have worked for years to develop ever-thinner layers of sandwich filling.

But the marketing materials for the food conglomerate Lance insist that Lance is different. To underline and italicize its commitment to this product category, the company has introduced Bolds—a line of cracker sandwiches with tastes so intense, they'll make you want to get out your skateboard and pose awkwardly for promotional photographs. The bacon-cheddar variety is like eating a smoke sandwich, and the pizza crackers represent another failed attempt to turn "pizza" into a flavor. The buffalo wing/blue cheese ones, though, taste shockingly like wings—the taste is so strong and familiar, it's like eating Willy Wonka's meal-in-a-gum, except the meal stops after the appetizer course. [John Teti]

Trolli Sour Brite CrawlersThese are sour gummy worms. They fulfill most, if not all, of the requirements of regular gummy worms—and they're a little smaller than the kind you usually find, so they're easier to eat. They're also a little chewier than your run-of-the-mill gummy worms—and more flavorful. The flavors, a distinctive fake cherry, fake lemon, and fake "blue," make the aftertaste skew a little more toward sweet and less toward sour: not terrible, not great. [Sonia Saraiya]

Trolli Sour Watermelon SharksThe sharks, for some reason, are watermelon-flavored, and that is a crucial problem with these guys. The other problem is that making the gummies look like sharks seems to require making them a little more chewy and thick than an average gummy. It's kind of a cross between a watermelon Starburst and a regular sour gummy, with an overwhelming watermelon aftertaste and a totally bizarre texture. It's kind of okay, but mostly it's weird. [Sonia Saraiya]

Wonka Randoms

The gummy candies in a bag Wonka Randoms come in 70 shapes, seven fruit flavors, and three "textures": plain, jam-filled, and backed by foam. Because hundreds of permutations are possible for each gummy, Nestle notes that you'll "never get the same bag twice." So if you've been looking for a confection that can provide seeds for your random number generator, you're in luck, although you're not a very good programmer. Numbers aside, the candy tastes pretty good—similar to Haribo, and a bit firmer. Mr. Wonka's illusion of free-wheeling randomness is diminished by the relative rarity of the juicy-center gummies, which are the best kind. Handful after handful of Randoms contained nothing but the (presumably cheaper to produce) plain and foam-backed candies. Perhaps our bag happened by chance to have significantly fewer jam-filled pieces, but according to math, perhaps not. [John Teti]

Lemonhead GummiesTwo years ago, Chicagoland candy manufacturer Ferrara Pan merged with Minnesota's Farley's & Sathers to form a Midwestern empire of tiny, unopened boxes left in the bottom of a trick-or-treat bag. Lemonhead Gummies are the artificial fruit flavors borne by that merger, combining the variety of Ferrara Pan's signature (and not as racist as they used to be!) hard candy with the chewy, bite-size wares of the many brands previously organized under Farley's & Sathers imposing corporate umbrella. There's not much new to taste here: The gummies have the chalky surface and almost-there flavors of vintage Farley's Fruit Snacks, though they're a little firmer than those lunchbox staples. The only real difference is the candy's shape, as these gummies have been molded in the likeness of the nattily dressed, ever-smiling Lemonheads mascot. As such, the act of eating Lemonheads Gummies is a bit like chowing down on the rictus-grinning remains of the many regional candy companies that lost their heads along Ferrara's path to glory. [Erik Adams]

Butterfinger Peanut Butter Cups

Butterfingers can be a little much sometimes, what with their gigantic, intense peanut butter crunchiness. For those who like their Butterfinger consumption a little more metered, now there are Butterfinger Peanut Butter Cups, which are basically flat, square, squat versions of the candy bar you may or may not have previously enjoyed. Unsurprisingly, given the fact that they were probably consumer-tested from here to Timbuktu, they're pretty good, capturing that sweet and crunchy balance almost perfectly. [Marah Eakin]

Welch's PB&J bite-size snacksPeanut butter sandwiches have never really been that hard to eat, but Welch's new PB&J bite-size snacks seek to make the old favorites even more portable. Available in crunchy or creamy strawberry and grape varieties, the BB-like bites are basically drops of jelly wrapped in non-sticky peanut butter. Though they're almost certainly produced exclusively for children who still require car seats, they're surprisingly addictive—albeit very sweet. [Marah Eakin]

Brach's Caramel Macchiato Candy CornBrach's isn't the candy company you look to for innovation—they're the company you look to for candy corn and candy pumpkins, nothin' fancy. But they had a small bin tucked away featuring Caramel Macchiato Candy Corn, which isn't nearly as horrifying as it sounds. They've done caramel candy corn before, and this one adds a little hint of coffee flavor. Surprisingly, it's not bad. [Josh Modell]

Airheads BitesFor anyone yearning to indulge in the super-chewy, completely nutrient-free sugar-rush fantasy that is Airheads candy, yet can't commit the time nor the tooth strength the pesky 4-inch format requires, your day has arrived. Airheads are now available bite-size and packaged in a handy-dandy bag. Both the "Fruit" and the "Berry" candies were sampled, and the Berry flavors get the edge due to my extreme dislike of lemon-flavored Airheads. [Andrea Battleground]

Turtles Sea SaltThey took a Turtle (DeMet's did), and added a bunch of extra salt to the caramel. This was a good idea. [Josh Modell]

Hammond's Whoopie Pie chocolate barHammond always comes up with some of the Sweets & Snacks Expo's most intriguing chocolate bars, like last year's Red Velvet and Pigs N' Taters bars and this year's Cookie Dough bar ("a milk chocolate shell with a cookie dough filling") that they unfortunately weren't sampling yet. They did have samples of their new Whoopie Pie bar, which boasts a "dark chocolate shell with a sweet sugar frosting filling." While it tastes exactly like it sounds, the frosting is a little underwhelming compared to the dark chocolate, meaning the bar sadly eschews any of the subtle squishy creaminess that makes whoopie pies so damn good. [Marah Eakin]

Pez Hedz Soft Candy ChewsThe sample packaging for these chews—which resemble roadkill-flattened teddy bear heads—proclaims that they are gluten free, gelatin free, fat free, and contain no artificial flavors. Notably missing: any mention of taste. It's what film theorists call a "structuring absence." Lacking much in the way of an initial flavor, Pez Hedz offer the familiar sickly retronasal aftertaste of Pez candies, but in a new format that won't fit in your Boba Fett dispenser, but definitely will stick to your gums. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Bigs Ranch, Dill Pickle, and Bacon Salt Sunflower Seeds

Bigs, which is presumably the biggest flavored-sunflower-seed peddler around, has teamed up with various recognizable brands over the years to create powders in which to dip its in-the-shell seeds. This year, we grabbed Hidden Valley Ranch, Vlasic Dill Pickle, and Bacon Salt Sizzlin' Bacon flavors, which all have the veneer of healthiness about them, and yet seem not that good for you. They promise "BIG Seeds BIG flavor," though the latter was really only true of the tasty pickle ones—the others are actually pretty subtle. And crunchy, very crunchy. [Josh Modell]

Altoids Arctic

Altoids have long been known as the Curiously Strong Mints, but the new Altoids Arctic aren't strong. Having painted itself into a corner, Wrigley decided to bill these Altoids-for-wimps as the Curiously Cool Mints. (There's nothing curious, though, about mint being cool. That's what mint does.) Now that one defining characteristic of the Altoids brand has been abandoned, we're left to focus on the mints' only other claim to fame—namely, that Altoids come in a handy tin. The Altoids Arctic tin is more compact than its forebear, like a cigarette lighter, and it opens at the narrow end. It's a sturdy construction that makes a nice complement to the wide, shallow storage space of the traditional Altoids container. As for the mints? They're Certs in a tin. If Dr. Sebastian Altoid were around to see the watered-down products bearing his name, he would be furious. Luckily, he does not exist. [John Teti]

Dubble Bubble Fizzers Fizzing Bubble Gum As the name Dubble Bubble has long indicated, the flavor is gone within five to 10 chews—the same exact way it is for the brand's classic offerings. But with Fizzers' soda-flavored variations—that taste nothing like soda, but do taste generically sweet, you do get a bit of carbonation, or an uneven "fizz." Things come in stages, with solid bursts of carbonation before it tastes like you're just chewing on the absence of flavor. [Becca James]

Brookside Dark Chocolate Crunch ClustersBrookside is the company with the austere bags of chocolate-covered fruit, a company that did one extremely specific thing, in three semi-exotic flavors (pomegranate, acai and blueberry, and goji and raspberry), and did it well enough to be acquired by Hershey's. Now Brookside is messing with the program slightly, but adding "crispy multigrains" to a fruity center. Once again, though: great success. They're chewy and crispy and delicious. [Josh Modell]

Poplets Toasted Corn Centers

Let's be honest here: "toasted corn centers" is really just a nice name for half-popped kernels of popcorn, the kind usually found at the bottom of a bowl or sticking to the inside of a microwaved bag. Whatever you want to call them, they're never going to be anyone's first choice; they're a snack in the same sense that the debris at the bottom of a bag of chips is a snack. The packaging trumpets (twice!) that "corn centers" are seven times softer than corn nuts, which is sort of like saying that the lead pipe you're about to get whacked with is seven times softer than copper. (Which is technically true, at least according to the Brinell scale.) The Sea Salt and Butter flavored Poplets we tried tasted more or less exactly like stale corn nuts, but with a burnt aftertaste and the added benefit of small bits of kernel-shell matter sticking between your teeth. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Warheads Sour Jelly BeansHas '90s-nostalgia fever finally done something right by reviving that decade's verve for sour? The number of sour options retrieved from the Sweets & Snacks Expo seems to say, "yes." Unfortunately, the saliva-sapping hit of this variation on the most extreme decade's most extreme candy is too fleeting, the sour-then-sweet equivalent of a giddy-but-ultimately-empty sprint through the YouTube Nicktoons archive. Turning Warheads into jelly beans is antithetical to the whole enterprise, anyway: The original is a candy of endurance, not a quick pop of malic acid that's over as soon as your molars reach the jelly part of the jelly bean. Kids these days have it so much easier, with their on-demand cartoons and candies that they're actually supposed to enjoy. [Erik Adams]

Benny's Original Beef StrawsWe're saving these for a full-on Taste Test, but you should know they exist. Someone took beef jerky sticks, added holes down the center, and called them "Beef Straws." Clearly they're meant to be used as a vessel for a Sunday morning bloody mary, but we're going to give them a shot in other things as well. [Josh Modell]