Report From the Sweets and Snacks Expo, Part I: What the Big Guns Brought

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending what might be the single greatest annual event in the United States: the Sweets & Snacks Expo (formerly known as the All Candy Expo). The trade show, put on by the National Confectioners Association and held in Chicago's McCormick Place, was in its 14th year this time around and is an awesome presentation of the array sweet and salty snacks in this country, with heavy emphasis on sweets.

The list of exhibitors is simply staggering. All of the major candy companies are well represented of course, but so are a huge number of regional manufacturers, new companies and foreign companies. The highlights for me and presumably for the stores that comprise the bulk of the visitors at the show, are the new exhibitors and new products.

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There was still so much candy to eat that it took me until now to get through everything to get a report together. Rather than stuff everything into a way too long post like last year, I'm going to break things up into a few different posts this year. Up first are my favorite new products from the big boys—the national and international candy companies that are most familiar to us all. These guys are not big risk-takers and they're not leading the charge in taste innovation, but unlike in other parts of the food world, the multinationals in the candy business are still putting out products that even the most serious eaters can love.

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Betting that consumers want less nougat and more caramel, M&M Mars is introducing Snickers Extreme, a traditional Snickers bar but with the nougat replaced with caramel. As with a traditional Snickers, the sweet and salty combination really worked well. I'm a big fan of nougat, but this one was a winner for me. This limited edition candy bar will hit stores in September.

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I am a firm believer that the 3 Musketeers is a highly undervalued candy bar, and that the reason has much more to do with texture than flavor. The new 3 Musketeers Truffle Crisp, which is almost a cross between a 3 Musketeers and a Twix, solves the texture "problem." The extra crunch from the cookie makes a huge difference, both in adding crunch while lightening the overall product.

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Speaking of Twix, there's a new version in town. Candy-obsessed folks may remember the Twix Java from a limited appearance in 2008, but now the version of Twix with coffee-flavored caramel is back and this is no special edition; Twix Java is officially here to stay. For those of us who like strong coffee flavor in their candy and don't mind extremely sweet candy, this one is a winner.

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Continuing with the caramel theme is the Milky Way Simply Caramel, which is a Milky Way in minus nougat and plus a lot more caramel. The result is one extremely caramel-heavy bar that was a little much for me at room temperature. Frozen, however, I found that I liked it a lot. But better than a traditional Milky Way? No.

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Pretzel M&M's have been out in stores for a little while, but they were still a big part of M&M/Mars' push at this year's show. Having not had them until I arrived at the show, I can understand the persistence. The saltiness and airiness of the pretzel makes this M&M a winner. They were so good that they made me forgive the extremely artificial-tasting Coconut M&M's that were also promoted heavily.

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Jelly Belly is keeping things relatively subdued in 2010, but there are a couple new flavors worth noting. Up first (pictured above) is the Classic Cocktail collection. Three of the flavors, Margarita, Piña Colada, and Strawberry Daiquiri, have all been around for a while and they are now joined by Mojito, Pomegranate Cosmo, and Peach Bellini. Much more exciting in my opinion (though not pictured) are Chili Mango and Honey Bean. Jelly Belly devotees may remember a Honey Graham Jelly Belly from a few years ago. That one was rejected by consumers (not me) as being too overwhelming in the honey department. The new incarnation is definitely toned down, but still packs an excellent honey wallop.

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Jelly Belly's lower cost competitor, Gimbal's, is also entering the honey bean world, but is doubling down. Actually, they are 16-ing down: The Honey Lovers collection has 16 different honey-tinted flavors ranging from Huckleberry Honey (my favorite) to Cinnamon Honey. Along with putting out a delicious honey product, Gimbal's will donate 5 percent of proceeds to the University of California Davis' Honey Bee Research Program.

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Rounding out the fruity chewy category were Whipped Wingers Gummies from Nestle-owned Wonka. The candies were like an airy and almost creamy version of a traditional gummy candy—sort of like a cross between gummy bears and cool whip. These were much better than I expected, but that's not saying too much. I don't know that I'd run out and buy these again, but I would steal them from young relatives.

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The new Sour Apple Tootsie Pop has to go in the "what took so long" category. Sour apple (and sour fruit flavors in general) have been all the rage for years, but Tootsie Pop has been reluctant to add flavors even as Tootsie's subsidiary, Charms, has been heavily invested in the trend with its Blow Pops for years. In any event, the new flavor of Tootsie Pop is one I expect fans of the candy will welcome with open arms.

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Just Born may not be a huge company on par with M&M/Mars, but I think Peeps are ubiquitous enough to merit mention with the giants of the candy world, especially here on Serious Eats where there has been some major Peeps love in the past. 2010 is going to blow Peeps-lovers' minds. The company is introducing a variety of new shapes and flavors, including pumpkins and Christmas trees, mint and raspberry marshmallow, and dark chocolate coatings.

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I understand that the innards of the raspberry Peep may not appeal to everyone. It is, after all, a fairly shockingly unnatural color and not one most people readily associate with marshmallows. But as someone who loves Peeps and ate the one in question, I will proudly stand by this candy in a debate on its deliciousness. Incidentally, the mint ones are as green as these are dark pink.

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Okay, so Pop Rocks may not quite fit into the large candy company category, but like Peeps, they have sufficient widespread notoriety to be included in this group. The new chocolate Pop Rocks are pretty amazing. The pop rocks themselves are unflavored and drenched in chocolate. The chocolate itself is not that great, but when the melt-in-your mouth chocolate combines with the little explosions from the crisp interior, the result is a lot of fun. The limited edition product will be on shelves from October through December and will then be gone for at least two years. So if you try them and like them, make sure you stock up. Also coming from Pop Rocks this year is the relaunch of their cherry flavor.