Josh Modell has since gone over to the dark and sweet side

They know us at the Sweets & Snacks Expo now. Think about that for a second. It’s a bit comforting, like walking into your favorite bar and the bartender sliding over your usual without even asking. It’s also a little disconcerting, like realizing that your bartender knows you better than your family does. But we will never stop going as long as they’ll have us—the National Confectioners’ Association, that is, which presents a sugar orgy trade show called the Sweets & Snacks Expo every year at Chicago’s McCormick Place. As usual, we returned like conquering warriors to an office full of people hungry to nibble at our leftovers. But first, we had to try some of what we scored, and to let you know about the exciting new products in the world of sweets and snacks.

Flipz Birthday Cake covered pretzels

Similar in appearance to Mother’s Circus Animals, Flipz Birthday Cake covered pretzels seem at first to simply be the white fudge variation of the DeMet’s treat covered in a few sprinkles. The combination, however, makes for an overpoweringly sweet taste, almost like some artificial cake batter flavor was also added to the mix. So, beside the upgrade in visual appeal for those that enjoy a little color in their life, these are passable in favor of the original flavors. [Becca James]

Combos Sweet & Salty Vanilla Frosting Pretzel and Caramel Crème Pretzel

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The pleasure of eating Combos has never been much about, well, any specific part of the snack. Like Doritos, you either like the chemically induced hint of various cheese/pizza/sauce alkaloids combined with cracker/pretzel or you don’t. The attempt to expand this into the realm of sweet is meant to evoke the pleasures found in something like Buncha Crunch, only with fewer actual food-based ingredients. Of these two choices, the Caramel Crème is better, mainly because the caramel flavor is strong enough to overcome the pretzel, thereby making it taste somewhat like a candy. The Vanilla frosting flavor, by contrast, is mostly unpleasant, as though reminding you that you shouldn’t really be eating Combos to begin with. It turns out those powdery nuggets of fake pepperoni pizza flavoring were covering up a worrisome shell all these years. [Alex McCown]

Look-O-Look Mini Candy Pizza

Okay, there are a number of problems with this “pizza.” First of all, here’s what it looks like immediately upon opening:

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Why is there an egg in the middle of my pizza? What child is going to see that and think, “Hey, all right, classic sunny-side up pizza!” Additionally, there are pieces of fruit on there, blackberries and raspberries from the look of it. Again, not a topping. But wait—is the crust made of giant bananas? The hell? This is not a pizza, it’s a Frankenstein monster of leftover gummis the company had lying around, and out of which decided to wring some extra profit. Don’t even get me started on the actual gummi bears thrown on there. “For the discerning pizza lover,” no doubt the Look-O-Look ad campaign shall read. Buried beneath all of this detritus? Three small gummi slices of pizza, probably not coincidentally the three worst-tasting items of this gummi grab bag. As gummi candy: B-. As a “Mini Candy Pizza”: F-double-minus. [Alex McCown]

Jelly Belly Star Wars Galaxy Mix

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My Galaxy Mix pouch has Darth Vader on the front and seven flavor descriptions on the back, all with the word “sparkling” in front of them. “Sparkling Berry Blue,” “Sparkling Sour Apple,” etc. They are green, blue, and purple—the palette the folks at Jelly Belly apparently consider sufficiently within the “galaxy” color scheme. What makes them different from run-of-the-mill Earthly Jelly Bellies is that each “galaxy” bean has a dull metallic sheen. With the slightly different look, they still taste exactly like Jelly Bellies. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Lance Bolds Cracker Sandwiches: Bacon Cheeseburger

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A big part of our sense of taste actually comes from our sense of smell—to test this, close your eyes, pinch your nostrils closed, and try to guess what flavor Lifesaver is in your mouth. It’s hard to do. The cracker sandwiches of today are not the modest bright orange ones I grew up with, and the smell of these bacon cheeseburger ones hits the olfactory cells with all the powerful technology artificial flavoring brings to bear; there’s simply nothing naturally occurring that smells like this. It’s an intensely, unpleasantly artificial bacon and smoke flavor. But after getting it past my nose and into my mouth, the bacon/smoke flavor is barely perceptible, and in their place is the inexplicable taste of celery salt and chicken noodle soup. The latter must be due to the MSG listed in the ingredients. Unfortunately, the flavor enhancer does little to make this cracker sandwich good. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Pringles with Jalapeño Cheddar Dip

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A plastic container is tacked onto a small can of original Pringles. I’d forgotten how salty and addicting Pringles are; they’re not exactly good, but true to the advertising, it is hard to stop once you start. The cheese dip is another story. A coagulated blob, it maintained its exact shape when I open it and turn it upside-down. Not even benefiting from a heat lamp like the “cheese” that comes with move-theater nachos, this stuff is as bland as it’s possible to be. I don’t detect any jalapeño flavor, which would have added much-needed taste to this monotonous globule. It’s not flavorful, but it’s also not offensive, which is a surprising win in favor of the cheese. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Hershey’s Snack Mix

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The front of Hershey’s new Snack Mix packaging promises “Hershey’s Mini Milk Chocolate Bars, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Pretzel Bites, Roasted Salted Almonds & Mini Pretzels.” The realistic text would say “Chocolate Featuring Pretzels And A Few Almonds.” Our 2-ounce package had like five almonds, but people aren’t clamoring for almonds from one of the world’s most famous chocolate-makers, are they? The “Snack Mix” name is probably a way to make it seem, if not healthier, then less indulgent than a traditional Hershey’s bar, but a regular Hershey’s bar has fewer calories, and basically the same amount of fat as the Snack Mix. But it doesn’t have the salty pretzel crunch of the Snack Mix, which is pretty tasty. [Kyle Ryan]

Josh Modell, an Oreo, Kyle Ryan

Cadbury Crème Egg Cookies Limited Edition

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The problem with Cadbury Crème Eggs is their seasonality: They’re fundamentally an Easter candy, which leaves a good nine months out of the year without that sweet, sweet choco-revenue. Cadbury has slapped different labels on it for other holidays—the Screme Egg for Halloween, the Ornament Crème Egg for Christmas—but the British company is finally thinking outside the chocolate-shell box with Crème Egg Cookies. Already available in the U.K., the cookies place the gooey crème atop a thin chocolate cookie disc and wrap the whole thing in chocolate. It’s as rich as it sounds, and each pack offers a bountiful six cookies. They’re tasty, but you may feel the enamel melting off your teeth when you eat them. [Kyle Ryan]

Kettle Brand Pepperoncini, Red Curry, Roasted Garlic, and Thick + Bold Carolina BBQ

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The brand of kettle chips that puts its mode of preparation right there in the name, Kettle specializes in fried potato snacks that are sometimes flavorful, sometimes aromatic. With the exception of the Pepperoncini variety—a milder, brinier take on the jalapeño chip—Kettle’s latest offerings are mostly distinguished by their fragrance, like the wood-chipper’s load of smoke that erupts from a newly opened bag of Thick + Bold Carolina BBQ. In Red Curry and Roasted Garlic, Kettle just might be on its way to capturing an entire meal in a handful of crispity, crunchity starch. Eating one after the other is a bit like chasing a bite of curry takeout with a piece of garlic naan. [Erik Adams]

Mike And Ike Jurassic World Tropical Fruits

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Just as Jurassic World updates a beloved ’90s artifact for contemporary tastes (read: adds Chris Pratt), Mike And Ike Jurassic World Tropical Fruits brings a favorite movie snack into the present day. Stopping short of giving moviegoers a taste of the erstwhile Andy Dwyer, the candy is simply a variation on Just Born’s “everyday” Tropical Typhoon flavors, a tie-in cinched by the inclusion of an egg-shaped “Mystery Flavor.” (The mystery: “Do they make grape Mike And Ikes?”) The tangy candies aren’t anything to write home about, but half the box got eaten anyway. Just consider me the Henry Wu of fruit-flavored gelatin capsules: I knew better, but I just couldn’t stop myself from going back to Jurassic World (in Mike And Ike form, at least). [Erik Adams]

Chuao Strawberry Waffle Wild and Cinnamon Cereal Smooch bars

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The fine, chocolatey people at Chuao have long mixed chocolate with not chocolate when producing their bars, introducing everything from popcorn to honeycomb to their products. The company’s two newest forays into the wacky chocolate marketplace—Strawberry Waffle Wild and Cinnamon Cereal Smooch bars—really amp up breakfast’s candy-centric potential, mixing sweet morning flavors with dessert sensibilities. While the “crunchy waffles” promised by the Strawberry Waffle Wild label aren’t really there, the freeze-dried bits of strawberry more than satisfy, making the bar a flattened, portable way to enjoy the taste of chocolate-covered strawberries. Cinnamon Cereal Smooch is a bastardized version of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and it’s pretty delicious as well. The bar’s cinnamon taste is light and tempered with sugar, making it much more delicate than a lot of other “chocolate + cinnamon” products, most of which are just too darn spicy. [Marah Eakin]

Josh, some old lady

Mixed Nuts Snickers

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Snickers is the undisputed champ of candy bars, its mini-versions by far the most highly prized in any child’s Halloween stash. You may wonder why Snickers would mess with perfection, but perhaps the folks at Mars, Inc. just got bored. After an almond version, the latest from Snickers labs offers us the “limited edition” Mixed Nuts Snickers, rakishly throwing almonds and hazelnuts into the peanut mix. The result is indeed a slightly more elegant candy bar. Mixed Nuts Snickers offers an amped-up, more complex nutty flavor addition to the chocolate, caramel, and always-mysterious nougat, and a refreshing change of pace for nut fans. Maybe there’s a reason Snickers is so revered, as it offers both sugar for energy and protein for sustenance. Could it be the world’s most perfect food? Short answer: Yes. [Gwen Ihnat]

Jelly Belly Bubbly

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Like many Jelly Bellys, Bubbly, the company’s champagne-flavor beans, are heavenly for the first few nanoseconds, then depressingly slide into bland sweetness. The bean’s outer-coating offers an amazing nod to the planet’s most ideal beverage, bubbly and fizzy and yes, a white-grapey hint of the divine alcohol. A few more chomps, however, and that lovely atmosphere departs. You are then compelled to grab more beans to get your champagne-kick back, until you are lost in an overwhelming sugary haze. Well played, Jelly Belly. [Gwen Ihnat]

Milky Way Marshmallow

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Milky Way has been a little more coy about introducing new varieties than its candy brethren—there’s really just the basic version, plus the delicious Simply Caramel and the also delicious Dark, a.k.a. Midnight. So it’s pretty much batting 1,000, by just rearranging the same basic pieces. Milky Way Marshmallow switches up the nougat for marshmallow, keeping the milk chocolate and the caramel intact. And while the marshmallow isn’t quite chewy and marshmallow-y enough for my taste, it is still a winner. [Josh Modell]

Cow Tales Crispy Moo and Caramel Creams Crispy Rice Treat

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My co-workers are confused by my love of Cow Tales, which—as they are quick to point out—is a candy more likely to be found in a nursing home than the lair of a super cool Gen X website editor’s house. But I always load up on them at the candy show—they’re simple, sweet, and there’s nothing quite like their weird mixture of vanilla cream and soft caramel. (Okay, there’s something exactly like it, manufactured by the same company, Goetze’s, called a Caramel Cream.) And until recently, it has really made essentially nothing else. So I was surprised this year to find that it had introduced a couple of crispy rice bars (what you non-experts might call Rice Krispies Treats) with its other products basically just sitting on top, with a bit of cream drizzle. It’s sugary and okay, but seems like an unnecessary attempt to mess with something that a niche market already thinks is pretty perfect. Stop trying to hip things up, Cow Tales! [Josh Modell]

Josh and a Haribo gummy bear

Trident Layers Swedish Fish

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C’mon Trident. This is just unnecessary. Gum and Swedish Fish? Or rather, layered gum that’s supposed to taste like Swedish Fish, with a hint of lemon? You just recycled some Fruit Stripe, I think, and slapped some Swedish Fish branding on here. You can’t fool us with this brand synergy and sugar substitutes. We’re chewing grown-up gum. [Josh Modell]

Goodness Knows

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The theme at this year’s Expo seemed to be, “Hey, we know you want to be a fatass, fatass, but why don’t you think about not killing yourself with sweets for a second?” (This was conveyed with phrases like “portion control.”) To that end, Mars is introducing a line of fruit/nut/chocolate bars called Goodness Knows that boast something called “cocoa flavanols,” which will “help support the healthy circulation of nutrients and oxygen.” They look and taste like the Kind bars that have chocolate on the bottom, which is a good thing. And they’re delivered in four discrete chunks per package, so you can pretend like you’re only going to eat one “peachy cherry” square before actually mowing down all four. (I’m talking to myself.) [Josh Modell]

Assorted Mini Sour Candies

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There are a plethora of pucker-inducing candies in the world, each tasked with riding the line between tastefully tart and bracingly bitter. One of the more beloved sour candies are Trolli’s Sour Brite Crawlers, which now come in the Mini Crawler variety. Though the bite-size version retains the original’s flavor and increases their snackability, they’re sorely missing the fun that comes with slurping up a full-size gummy worm. More successful are Trolli’s Extreme Sour Bites Fruitz, which come in four “fearsome” flavors. Though they’re not necessarily sour, the jelly-bean-like bits pack a surprising amount of tart, fruity flavor. On the other end of the enjoyability spectrum are Necco’s Dazzled Tart Sweethearts, which are meant to put a sassy spin on the Valentine’s Day novelty treat. At the very least, standard Sweethearts were flavorless and inoffensive, but these are annoying (hearts have “flirty” phrases, like “DRAMA QUEEN” and “JUST DANCE”) and kind of disgusting (tart flavors don’t make the chalkiness any more palatable). [Cameron Scheetz]

Hot Tamales Tropical Heat and Fierce Cinnamon

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Hot Tamales might see themselves as the badass cousins of Mike And Ike’s, but their slightly cinnamon schtick gets old after you pop a few back. Looking to reignite interest in the brand, Just Born Candy (whose creepy slogan is “A great candy isn’t made… It’s Just Born”) has unveiled two new iterations of its spicy chews: Tropical Heat and Fierce Cinnamon. The first of the two gets immediate points for thinking outside the box a bit: It’s not too often that you find flavors like Pineapple Picante and Limon Fever in the candy aisle. They deliver on the tropicalia, but could stand to up the heat factor. While I enjoyed the margarita-esque bite of the aforementioned Limon Fever, Mango Tango proved to be a dud that only offered a split-second of sweetness before losing all flavor. In comparison, Fierce Cinnamon definitely has some more fire to it, even if it’s not quite living up to the finger-snapping attitude the word “fierce” has become associated with. [Cameron Scheetz]

Josh and a one-mile long candy necklace

Tic Tac Mixers

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Aside from being RuPaul’s favorite food, Tic Tacs are supposed to be a breath freshener, which, really, means they should come in just two flavors: mint, and extra-strength mint, for after you eat something garlicky. But that’s not how consumer culture works, and so in an attempt to expand its product line Tic Tac has concocted two new flavors, which then turn into two more new flavors in your mouth. The first of these so-called Tic Tac Mixers is Peach-Lemonade, which actually tastes pretty good, in a chemical-laden, Country Time Lemonade kind of way. Then there’s Cherry-Cola, which starts off okay, but starts to taste like cough medicine midway through the “flavor changing experience” and ends up with something that doesn’t taste like cola, but does kind of taste like you dropped a cherry cough drop on the ground, picked it back up, and put it into your mouth again. That’s if you have the patience to wait for the transformation, anyway—if you follow the natural human impulse to bite down on either flavor, the taste is overwhelmed by a texture reminiscent of eating powdered drink mix straight from the jar. [Katie Rife]

Yoo-hoo Candy Mini Bars

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Yoo-hoo enters the overpopulated chocolate bar marketplace with a mini hunk of sweetness presumably meant to evoke the taste of drinking Yoo-hoo. That it somewhat succeeds can either be taken as a promise or a warning, depending on your feelings about the sugary drink. Providing a distinct chocolaty kick upon the first bite, the taste of added sugar quickly rushes in, as does a lingering aftertaste equally reminiscent of the beverage that many a child has discovered should not be guzzled. Or put into bar form, apparently. [Alex McCown]

Pop Tart Gone Nutty! Chocolate Peanut Butter

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Continuing Pop Tarts’ track record of turning breakfast into candy, this tastes almost exactly like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. By the time I had it for breakfast it had traveled a lot in a bag and backpack, so it was too broken to put in a toaster. It’s probably a more authentic way to taste it anyway—who actually toasts those things? I’d say hot peanut butter might be gross, but it’s not really peanut butter so much as peanut-flavored corn syrup. That said, it’s sweet and chocolaty and, if you like that chocolate-peanut butter flavor combo, this will hit the spot. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Bon O Bon

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A more sugary take on peanut butter, I first encountered Bon O Bon products in Argentina 10 years ago as a high-school foreign exchange student. It’s nice to see it’s made its way Stateside, even though the candy doesn’t have much to offer. It’s basically a sweeter, almost-peanut-butter variation on the slew of already existing candy bars built of a chocolate outside and something crunchy and soft on the inside. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Lance Quick Starts Maple French Toast breakfast biscuit sandwiches

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Promising 13 grams of whole grains and “nutritious morning energy,” the packaging is going for the health angle. But the first ingredient is sugar, and that’s exactly what it tastes like: sweetened crackers with a sugary sweet maple flavor. Like many plastic-wrapped products promising a good breakfast, this is candy pretending. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Crave Mmm! Sweet & Spicy Peanuts

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Unlike another snack drawing on the savory heat of Chesapeake Bay seasoning—Utz’s quotation-mark-happy Crab Chip—Crave Mmm! Sweet & Spicy Peanuts makes no claim to being shellfish-flavored. But no matter what Old Bay’s signature yellow tin might tell you, the seasoning tastes great on everything, and this New England cousin to the traditional honey-roasted peanut is no exception. In fact, if finishing Old Bay’s “everything on the spice rack” zest with a touch of sweetness wasn’t integral to the product, I’d suggest that Katharine Beecher drop the “sweet” conceit from Crave Mmm! entirely. The seasoning improves everything it touches—why should adding Old Bay on top of Old Bay be any different? [Erik Adams]

RAP Protein Energy Gummies

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These aren’t candy… or are they? RAP (“rapid acting protein”) energy gummies contain whey protein isolate, and each small pack has 10 grams of protein, plus a bunch of vitamins. For some reason, I’m more scared to try eating these than I would be psychedelic mushrooms. [Minutes later.] They look like dusty gum drops and taste like medicine, but I can’t hear any colors. (I also don’t feel boosted.) This is not a product I would purchase, and I’m a little sad that it took up precious space in my Sweets & Snacks Expo bag. (You can only take as much candy out as you can carry in one relatively small bag.) [Josh Modell]

Fruits In Chocolate (various flavors)

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The sad truth of the Sweets & Snacks Expo is that many (if not most) of the vendors don’t seem to have much interest in talking to press. We get it. They’re there to bolster their livelihoods, and they’d rather spend time with a buyer for a big store than for some goofs who like writing about candy. This isn’t true of every booth, though, and at the display for the simply named Fruits In Chocolate, I was intensely accosted by a guy named Noah who said, “A.V. Club! My friend loves you guys! He sent me a song that you guys posted, and he loved it! Can I take your picture and send it to him?” Meanwhile, somebody else from the company stood by and said, “Will you write about Fruits In Chocolate?” I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, which was perfectly fine with me. He took my picture, and then he told me that he wanted to “pay it forward” and tell me the name of a song that he loved. He flipped through his Blackberry and told me that I must promise to listen to “Distant Sures” by The Cave Singers, which as it turns out is an absolutely beautiful song. They also gave me some individually packaged chocolate-covered fruit, which was quite delicious. [Josh Modell]