Despite the many things that divided them — sweet versus salty, sour versus chocolate, Flamin’ Hot versus BBQ — everyone at the 26th annual Sweets & Snacks Expo at Chicago’s McCormick Place last month could agree on one thing: the past three years have been long and trying.
For candy and snack manufacturers, the pandemic era has been marked by shortages, inflation, and manufacturing difficulties. Christopher Gindlesperger, senior vice president of communications and consumer affairs of the National Confectioners Association, the expo’s sponsor, explains these difficulties to a group of reporters during a post-lunchtime news conference in a quiet meeting room upstairs from the hectic convention floor. Costs are up. Volume sales are down. Some popular flavorings are still missing in action, including one of Gindlesperger’s own favorite snacks (which he declines to name).
But the sweets and snacks industry is all about happiness, so no one dwelled too long on these sad facts. Instead, Gindlesperger and his colleagues preferred to accentuate the positive. Profits for both sweet and salty treats have increased 11 percent over the past year, according to Candy & Snack Today, the Expo’s official publication. Best of all, everyone seemed to have given up on the charade that highly processed foods like chips and candy could maybe, possibly, be considered healthy, a trend I had noticed at previous Expos, when manufacturers of cookies and pork rinds tried to argue that their products had actual nutritional value. The buzzword of this year’s gathering, used by Expo officials and vendors alike, was “affordable indulgence.”
“Physical well-being is as important as emotional well-being,” Gindlesperger continues. “Sweets and snacks lift your mood. They enhance celebrations. We’re meeting the moment.” In other words, if you’re feeling the least bit sad or stressed about the state of… everything, take a few seconds for a handful of cheese puffs or a bite-sized piece of chocolate or a sour gummy. Call it self-care, only it’s way less expensive than a spa day or even a scented candle.
For the first time since 2019, the Expo was back up to full strength. The line of convention-goers waiting to check-in and receive their badges and sample bags outside the grand ballroom extended well past the velvet ropes and halfway down the main concourse. The ballroom itself was packed, as was the smaller Skyline Ballroom across the hall, as retailers and brokers and mascots maneuvered their way through the narrow aisles. More than 800 exhibitors filled 210,000 square feet with no empty booths; there was also a waiting list more than 100 names long of companies hoping for a last-minute vacancy. “It’s like a Taylor Swift concert down there!” says Gindlesperger from the relative tranquility of the press room. (Next year, the Expo is picking up stakes from Chicago, its longtime home, and moving the show to the more spacious Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis to accommodate everyone.)
Along with indulgence, the other key element of this year’s expo was novelty. Even old-school treats like Dunkaroos and Trolli Crawlers sported new flavors and features (chocolate cookies with double chocolate frosting and a Sour Electric version with “2 flavors zapped together,” respectively). Gummies remain the fastest-growing candy in the sugary snacks market, and candy makers are rising to the challenge to find out how many solid things can be gummified. “[Gummy things have] a lighter flavor and chew,” explains Greg Guidotti, chief marketing officer of Ferrara, the nation’s largest producer of sugary snacks, between bites of SweetTart gummies, a new variation on the familiar chalky disks.
Everybody in the candy and snack worlds is also searching for the next pumpkin spice, according to Kelly Heinz and David Banks of Bell Flavors and Fragrances, a Chicago-based manufacturer of custom flavors. No one has found it yet (s’mores, the hot flavor of the 2022 festival, did not catch on), but in the meantime, companies are trying to deliver what Banks in a presentation called “high-intensity food pairings” and mixtures of existing flavors. These included the bizarre (white cheddar seaweed), the strange-but-intriguing (Warheads sour candy-coated pickles), and the seemingly inevitable (Dr. Pepper Peeps, Everything Bagel mixed nuts).
Snack companies appear to have taken the lockdown-era slogan “We’re all in this together” seriously, and some new collaborations, the equivalent of music supergroups, have emerged. Lays and Jack Links teamed up on two new flavors of beef jerky, Doritos sweet chili and the ubiquitous Flamin’ Hot, while Stuff’d Puffs and Cinnamon Toast Crunch made cinnamon sugar marshmallows. Ben & Jerry’s and Tony’s Chocolonely, two companies with a shared interest in social justice issues, have combined forces to fight child slavery on West African cocoa farms with dark milk chocolate with brownie and white chocolate strawberry cheesecake candy bars.
Straight-up spicy snacks also remain popular. In a likely attempt to gain ground on Takis, Lays introduced an American version of Abobadas, a smoky pepper-seasoned potato chip that’s the most popular flavor in its Mexican Sobritos line.
Finally, companies continue to manufacture candy and snacks for people with specialized diets. Many vendors boasted of selling products that were gluten-free, keto-friendly, or kosher certified. Reese’s continues to push its plant-based Reese’s Cups and a rep from Mauna Loa nuts handed out coupons for macadamia nut milk ice cream; macadamia nuts are fattier than almonds or oats, so their milk, she claimed, is closer to dairy in texture. Meanwhile, Ritter Sport introduced a dairy-free vegan bar made from oat and almond milk with an almond-hazelnut paste to simulate the natural creaminess that comes from cows’ milk. One smaller company, Mooosh, has figured out how to make a sugar-free cotton candy from dietary fibers (the sales rep could offer no further explanation than that), and another, Poshi, has devised shelf-stable packaging for steamed artichokes, cauliflower, and asparagus for people who prefer to eat their vegetables on the go.
But for the most part, sweets and snacks sellers seem to have decided that their primary mission is simply bringing joy to their customers. The era of caffeinated candy bars and chamomile gummies isn’t entirely over, but most of the samples at the show this year returned to the basics — chips and candy that delivered a reliable quick hit of sugar, salt, and fat.
Maybe the best summation of this year’s sweets and snack trends came from Steve Rehkemper, a sales rep for the Spin Pop, a device that twirls a lollipop for you while you lick it: “You don’t need one, but it’s more fun to have one.”