The annual Sweets and Snacks Expo rolled into Chicago last week, filling the usually sober McCormick Place convention center with giant posters, plush mascots, branded race cars, and smiling salespeople distributing bite-sized samples in pleated paper cups. There were chocolate bars, chocolate truffles, marshmallows, jelly beans, gummies, regular Skittles, dehydrated Skittles, crunchy fruit, frozen fruit, nut butter, actual nuts, snack mixes, popcorn, energy drinks, protein bars, aggressively strong mints, aggressively sour sourballs, aggressively Flamin’ Hot cheese puffs, jerkies made from the flesh of all sorts of animals and a few fruits and vegetables besides, and chips of every persuasion: potato, corn, plantain, sweet potato, beet, bean, parsnip, dragonfruit, and carrot.
It was a spectacle, full of color and flashing lights, the hum of sales and promotion, and the scent of artificial sugar pumped in by Hershey’s to simulate the smell of a candy factory. The sweets and snacks industry generates $37 billion in sales every year, a number that is projected to rise to $45 billion by 2026 according to the National Confectioners Association, which sponsors the expo. And while the purpose of the expo is to keep the sales machine going by encouraging stores and wholesalers to place generous orders, it’s also to highlight the Next New Thing that Americans will be devouring. Those “new” things follow the long-standing trend of simply rehashing a flavor that’s already familiar: Expect a lot of s’mores, more brand mash-ups, and yes, Still More Flamin’ Hot flavor to hit shelves in the coming months.
S’mores were overwhelmingly the most popular “new” flavor, overpowering even birthday cake and churros. “I think everyone wants a taste of summer,” says NCA spokeswoman Lauren O’Toole Boland. Everything that could be s’morified was, from candy bars and chocolate bunnies to popcorn and Rice Krispies treats to the venerable Keebler Fudge Stripes cookies, which now come with a bonus tub of marshmallow fluff for dipping. But the vast majority of these s’mores are just combinations of marshmallow, chocolate, and graham crackers — without the gooeyness or burned-sugar flavor that makes real s’mores so delicious. The product that received the most attention was Stuffed Puffs, a brand of marshmallows stuffed with solid chocolate designed not to melt, even over a campfire. This year, the brand introduced Big Bites, which are nothing more than the signature product rolled in graham cracker crumbs: the s’more deconstructed and cleaned up for snacking on the go. (There are Oreo and birthday cake flavors as well.)
What s’morifying actually does is make a sweet thing even sweeter. Americans want more intensity of flavors, says Boland. They want more sourness and more saltiness and more… moreness.
That impulse is the driver behind the recent Flamin’ Hot-ification of the world, and the official chip of the 2022 Sweets and Snacks Expo, available to all convention-goers in bins just outside the sales floor, was Flamin’ Hot Cool Ranch Doritos, a combination of Frito-Lay’s two most popular flavors. (It tastes like a classic Cool Ranch Dorito, but the Flamin’ Hot seasoning makes the mouth burn for a few minutes longer.) But that was far from the only unholy union on display. This year, the general philosophy embraced by sweets and snacks manufacturers seemed to be: If something is popular, why not combine it with something else that is also popular, which, by the laws of mathematics, will make it twice as popular?
Two instant breakfast classics, Eggo waffles and Pop Tarts, married and spawned Eggo Pop Tarts, which taste like maple syrup. Bazooka took a page from Fun Dip and reconfigured its Juicy Drop in stick form, packaged with a sour gel dip that is supposed to enhance the flavor. Froot Loops cereal, Peeps, and Jell-O launched new gummy candies — all of which were designed to taste like the originals, and, in the case of the Froot Loops and Peeps, look like them, too — while Oreos adopted the texture of a snack cake for Oreo Cakesters. Cheez-Its have gotten bulked up and puffy, like Cheetos, except they are still in neat squares, not bulbous rods, while Apple Jacks grew larger to become a bona fide snack food (which is how many parents of small children have been serving them for years).
Such was the case throughout the rest of the expo. Some of the most truly innovative products — such as Carrot Bacon, a crunchy air-dried snack manufactured by a friendly Canadian named Tyler Steeves, and Crack Corn, a kernel-free and orthodontia-friendly popcorn that comes in flavors like French toast and chili lime — were overshadowed by the larger corporations with larger marketing budgets, who were offering nothing truly new, but simply mashing together two famous brands or reworking beloved snacks into slightly different forms.
Will something not Cool Ranched or gummied ever be embraced by Big Food the same way mangos, lime, hot peppers, Tajín seasoning, crispy seaweed, and gluten- and fat-free everything have? Or will they disappear into the netherworld of forgotten snacks? Perhaps it all depends on whether they can be combined with Flamin’ Hot salt or good old s’mores.