Mushroom chips, cheese bars, and oat milk chocolate: Day 1 at the 2021 Sweets & Snacks Expo

Twinkie the Kid, Peppa Pig PEZ dispensers, Popcorn cake, and a bounty of other treats
Photo: Aimee Levitt

The pandemic ruined a lot of things last year, including the annual Sweets & Snacks Expo, where candy and salty snack manufacturers gather to show off their latest and greatest innovations, mostly to buyers and distributors who have the power to put all this stuff in stores. It is very serious business! People have pulled out their suits and Serious Business Shoes from the back of the closet, where they spent quarantine, and they headed to Indianapolis, the temporary candy capital of America for the next three days, to swap business cards and grimly discuss potato chips and gummy bears.

Just kidding. Many of the exhibitors were absolutely delighted to be back on the show floor, although this year’s Expo is at the Indiana Convention Center instead of its usual home at McCormick Place in Chicago. (One exhibitor spoke longingly to me about deep dish pizza and showed me the view of the Chicago River from her hotel room at the last Expo, in 2019. Her current hotel view is of an Indianapolis rooftop.) And if you’re able to walk the floor, as I was, it’s like Halloween. In the morning when I presented myself at the registration table, I got a badge and a shopping bag. In the late afternoon when I left the Indiana Convention Center, the bag was full, and it weighed a lot.

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There are 450 exhibitors and 8,000 attendees total at the Expo this year, making it smaller than previous years, but there was still a lot to see. Here are some of the highlights from my first day.


The big food trends of 2021

First, we must acknowledge the big winner of this year’s convention. The Best in Show award went to Nerds Gummy Clusters, gummies encrusted with crunchy mini-Nerds, described by Candy & Snack Today, the convention’s daily newsletter, as “a multi-textured eating experience.” I don’t normally like Nerds, but I liked these a lot; the sweetness of the gummy kept the sourness from burning a hole in my tongue. (The combination of crunchy and gummy is evidently becoming more popular: Trolli, maker of the popular Sour Brite Crawlers gummy worms, debuted Sour Crunchy Crawlers last year.)

Mushrooms, in case you didn’t know, are big this year in the world of sweets and snacks. David Banks, a representative of Bell Flavors and Fragrances who outlined some industry trends in his lecture on Day 1 of the convention, cited mushrooms as a “functional” ingredient; they’re a vitamin-rich, natural substance that can make consumers feel connected to the world around them. I didn’t see mushroom ice cream, but I did taste a shiitake mushroom made by Roam Mushroom that was freeze-dried and salted so it was crispy like a potato chip. (It was very good.)

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Another broad concept touted at the convention was “energy.” Roaming the floor, I saw not one, but two candy bars made from coffee. (“If it doesn’t work,” said the eponymous manufacturer of Jesse’s WakeUp! bars, “I need a new job.” I will test my sample tomorrow morning.) I saw many, many energy bars; one from the New Zealand company Frooze Balls comes in ball form for the person who is so very on-the-go that they don’t even have time to eat an entire bar. (It also came in the comforting Lemon Cheesecake and the antioxidant-containing Blueberry Crumble flavors.)

Some true innovations

Photo: Aimee Levitt

I did see some products, though, that were unlike anything else I’d seen before, either at the show or out in the world:

Sonoma Creamery has made the world’s first cheese-covered pork rinds. I was frankly amazed that no one had come up with this idea before. The spokesman I spoke to at the booth told me it was because it’s not easy to get the cheese to stay on the pork rind. Along similar lines, a company called Just The Cheese makes bars that are... just the cheese. Essentially, it’s a bar of frico, the crispy fried cheese that sometimes ends up in the pan when you make something cheesy. How can anyone object to that?

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SoChatti, a chocolate company, makes a vacuum-sealed bar that can be eaten either solid or, after immersing it in hot water for 60 seconds, melted. I tried this later in my hotel room, but I don’t think the tap water was hot enough. Still, the chocolate was good, and I appreciated that the different flavors were identified by origin.

Savor Street makes grain-free pretzels from cassava. Joolie’s, grown by Kohl Valley Farm in the Coachella Valley, the nation’s second-largest Medjool date farm, sells dates packaged in little cardboard boxes, like raisins; this, the spokesman told me, is a vast improvement over the plastic clamshells most dates come in. The dates aren’t dried, like I thought (though, upon reflection, I realize that would make them prunes); encased in cellophane, they can stay edible for a year. Microsalt treats regular salt so that it breaks down into tiny grains, 100 times smaller than ordinary table salt. This, a spokesman claimed, made it lower in sodium than regular salt. There was a pile on the display table, and I ran it through my fingers. It was soft and powdery, like flour.

Microsalt
Photo: Aimee Levitt

YumEarth, according to a spokeswoman, assiduously studies the candy market and then creates duplicates of candy that are completely allergen-free, for those kids who can’t eat anything. I tried Giggles, the faux Skittles, and they were a fair imitation, although not as sour as the real thing. But I imagine that this will make a lot of high-allergy kids and their parents very happy. Meanwhile, Endangered Species Chocolate has created a new variety of chocolate: Oat Milk Chocolate, which it has mixed with lots of other flavors. It’s got a high cocoa content, but the aftertaste is slightly oaty.

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Maybe the most inventive gluten-free dessert option I saw was Popilicious popcorn cake. The kernels of popcorn are held together with marshmallow, in the style of a Rice Krispies Treat, and then the cakes are customized with chocolate and frosting and candy and other decorations. The company’s founder and CEO, Maria Bailey, developed the cakes when her daughter, Madison, was serving in the Peace Corps in Cameroon, and Bailey wanted to send her snacks that would stand up to shipping to Africa. Now Madison runs the company with her mother.

Popilicious popcorn cake
Photo: Aimee Levitt

(For the most part, it was pretty easy to tell which exhibitors had a personal connection to their product and which were just doing a job. The people who founded or owned the companies they were representing were, in general, much more interesting to talk to, though there were a few exceptions.)

The thing that surprised me most of all the things I saw and ate today, though, was the Dixie Lace Delights cookies made by 4U Snacks, a small company out of Tennessee. Caty Powell, who co-owns the company with her mother, told me that their cookies and granola were gluten-, soy-, and oil-free, and a pack of four is just 122 calories. All this, to me, usually translates as flavor-free. When Powell told me that she likes to eat her Dixie Lace Delights as a bedtime snack, I was extremely dubious. But then I tried a sample. It was buttery and crunchy and completely delicious. It did not taste like 30½ calories. Later, I tried the espresso Mad Munch granola. It was excellent, also.

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Old friends in new forms

Photo: Aimee Levitt

Of course many old and familiar friends were at the Expo—Hershey’s, Mars, Ferrero, Ferrara, Wise’s Potato Chips, Haribo, Bazooka, Palmer, Arizona Iced Tea—but they were all evolving, too. Here are some of the quick bites:

  • Palmer Candy, which has been making the cherry-flavored Twin Bing since 1923, recently added a caramel Twin Bing to the lineup, along with caramel- and white-chocolate-covered pretzels.
  • The Snickers Peanut Brownie has replaced the traditional nougat with brownie.
  • Bob’s Red Mill has recently begun selling granola bars and crackers, in addition to instant oatmeal.
  • Red Vines now come in blueberry pomegranate.
  • Takis come in Blue Heat.
  • Pez is selling dispensers bearing the heads of the cast of The Office (American version).
  • Goetz has partnered with Oreo to create a new version of its venerable Caramel Cremes (known to some of us as Bull’s Eyes).
  • Bauducco, the pre-eminent seller of panettone in the U.S. (it controls 73.6% of the market, a spokeswoman told me), has partnered with Mars to make M&M panettone; it also has all-chocolate panettone and, starting this year, vanilla.
  • Choward’s, best known for its violet candy, introduced guava a few years ago, its first new flavor since 1934 (“My son invented it!” co-owner Kathleen Pratz told me proudly).
  • Chicago’s beloved Garrett Popcorn has a new s’mores flavor, a best-seller, and matcha, which, I was told, has a big following on the West Coast; Garrett will not, however, stop pumping the smell of its classic caramel corn out onto the streets of the Loop.

Arizona Iced Tea now comes in fruit snack form. John K. Johnson, the senior director of sales and marketing of Arizona’s snacks division, told me it was selling like gangbusters. He showed me charts. But I couldn’t imagine who was buying them. He very quickly enlightened me: middle school and high school kids love Arizona beverages. They also have a lingering nostalgia for Welch’s Fruit Snacks. But Fruit Snacks are what their baby brothers and sisters eat. Iced tea fruit snacks split the difference. Johnson imagines a future in which these kids will keep eating these fruit snacks through college and eventually feed them to their own kids, just as their Millennial parents fed them Welch’s. Sweets and snacks is a long game.

I was most excited, I must admit, to receive a sample of Reese’s new potato chip peanut butter cup, so new it didn’t even have a branded wrapper yet. The pretzel cup is the best new candy I’ve had in years (it also won Best Chocolate at the Expo). The potato chip cup doesn’t have as dramatic a contrast between sweet and salty and crunchy as the pretzel, I think because potato chips are thinner than pretzels and don’t stand out as much in a big peanut butter cup. (Maybe they would work better in a smaller cup?) Still, potato chips in sweets is a concept that remains tragically underexplored. Do you hear that, candy-makers of America?

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