CHICAGO – Heat is the new sour and better-for-you were the trending takeaways from the Sweets & Snacks Expo late last month.
The annual three-day trade show in Chicago drew a whopping 200 new exhibitors among the more than 800 companies participating. That’s up 30 percent from 2015, according to organizers, the National Confectioners Association. What may be the world’s biggest wonderland brings together makers and buyers, plus a plushie Peppa the Pig, Twinkie the Kid and many more mute mascots.
I walked the whole four acres of the show, tasting countless samples, and talked to some of the throng of an estimated 17,000 attendees to find you the top 10 best and weirdest new sweets and snacks.
1. Snickers Hazelnuts join the peanuts already found in the classic Snickers milk chocolate, caramel and nougat bar. Chopped hazelnuts add their distinctive crunch plus toasted taste while maintaining the familiar flavor balance, unlike some other recent variations. (Snickers Crisper, I’m looking at you.) This Snickers was released as a limited edition last winter and has now made it to the permanent collection.
2. Skittles The hottest candy at the show, not literally, but the star of the sweet-is-the-new-sour trend. The crunchy candy shell gives way to a chewy texture, then a slow, surprising, slight burn followed by fruit flavors that include Blazin’ Mango, Fiery Watermelon, Flamin’ Orange, Lemon Spark and Sizzlin’ Strawberry. Skittles Sweet Heat reminded me of the many mouthwatering sweet and spicy Mexican candies, but you will need to wait until December to taste for yourself. (Maker Wrigley did not have the related Starburst Sweet Heat available to taste during the show.)
3. Jelly Bellys While Jelly Belly once again remarkably captures realistic flavors, this time with five Krispy Kreme doughnut flavored jelly beans, there’s one flavor that was unavailable to taste at the show. The Krispy Kreme original glazed was the best among the doughnut offerings, which also included cinnamon apple filled, strawberry iced, glazed blueberry cake and chocolate iced with sprinkles, probably because of its iconic taste. But the one that wins weirdest concept? The new “Minion” movie edition Bean Boozled green jelly beans, which may taste like sour apple or “Minion fart.” I was advised by a source who has tasted the latter to do so in a room with excellent ventilation or outdoors.
4. Cheetos Combining all the savory flavor trends in one, these crunchy Cheetos amp up the usual tart cheese heat with a smoky jalapeño jolt but no ranch relief, instead adding an allium note with forward onion and garlic taste. If you like the originals, you will probably love these, you flavor sensation junkie you. No word yet if these crunchy Cheetos will be made.
5. M&Ms Bigger, like their anthropomorphized peanut cousins, and surprisingly, though pleasantly, irregular in size. The crisp candy shell and inner milk chocolate layer hide a core of chewy, slightly salty caramel. It all works together for great complexity. These new M&M’s may be similar to the dulce de leche flavor discontinued nearly 20 years ago.
6. Red Vines Now made with no high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors or flavors. Red Vines fanatics don’t worry, your original twists still exist. But the new Made Simple variation embraces the better-for-you trend. The berry twists color looks a touch paler, perhaps what you might find in nature, with a slightly softer texture, and very subtle fruit taste. If the originals are your go-to candy, you will notice the difference, and hopefully for the better.
7. Utz Just a big bag of classic thin and crispy potato chips that happen to taste exactly like a cheeseburger, with mustard and onion mind you. The new Grillin’ Classics collection also includes convincing buttery Sweet Corn and Grilled Hot Dog flavors. The cheeseburger is the winner in the trio.
8. Tic Tac These are not your grandma’s little purse mints. Instead they’re a flavor-changing experience transitioning from coconut to pineapple. The mints are small, hard, with an intense clean taste, and you can detect the moment when the creamy coconut changes to sweet yet tart pineapple. I’ve tasted other flavors in the series that were not nearly as successful as this surprising, tiny, mind-bending moment, said to be designed for millennials.
9. Reese’s Reese’s won the 2017 Most Innovative New Product Awards Best in Show prize, judged by an industry panel of tasters, for the second year in a row. This time with milk chocolate-covered nuggets of mini peanut butter chips, peanuts and crispy puffs, which appear to be made with rice flour, according to the pack’s ingredients. Again irregularly sized chunks, perhaps a nod to an artisan trend, with the signature Reese’s peanut butter flavor and added texture.
10. Zollipops What could be the perfect treat after Sweets Snacks Expo than teeth-cleaning candy? Michigander Alina Morse, reportedly the youngest maker at the show, founded Zollipops when she was 7 as a teeth cleaning lollipop, says the company origin story. The new allegedly teeth-cleaning taffy was an idea from her little sister Lola. I don’t know if they cleaned my teeth, but they were a nice fruity and chewy alternative to gum, which all kids know you shouldn’t swallow.