On my first afternoon at this year’s Sweets & Snacks Expo in Indianapolis, I managed to tear myself away from the elaborate displays of Peppa Pig PEZ dispensers and chocolate-covered popcorn cakes to attended a lecture by David Banks, a representative of Bell Flavors and Fragrances, based in Chicago, who helpfully broke down some of the major trends in the sweets and snacks world right now. After a hard and depressing pandemic year, many of us are looking for both comfort and adventure, and we are finding it—where else?—in candy and snack foods.
To be clear, although it may have been a hard and depressing year for individual people involved in the production of sweets and snacks, it was a great moment for the industry as a whole: this is a business that does not depend on people having to go anywhere besides their homes, and sales of mints, gum, and candy were up 2.4% in the 52-week period in mid-May, according to a report by Information Resources, Inc. (IRI); chocolate did even better, with 5.7% growth.
Customers have been comforted by the flavors of their childhood, like cake and cookie batter, and by alcohol found in unexpected places, like rosé ice cream and champagne cotton candy. Somewhat conversely, they have also, as Banks put it, become “more susceptible to the world around us,” and are using food with “functional ingredients” to restore their emotional and physical well-being: antioxidant blueberries, mood-elevating flowers, vitamin-rich mushrooms. Consumers are interested in food that makes them feel good about themselves: chocolate bars that donate money to save endangered animals, mushrooms that remind them of foraging, Aleppo pepper that somehow makes them feel like they’re helping out Syria (I’m a bit skeptical of that one).
Paradoxically, snackers are also looking for excitement in their foods: international-flavored potato chips, multi-textured gummies (like the Nerds Gummy Clusters, which just won Best In Show at this year’s Expo), new hybrid flavors like pink pineapple (sweeter than the original, with a slight fermented note), and a smelly sticker called a Tasty Tab that you stick on top of a can of soda so that the aroma enhances the flavor of what you’re drinking.
And indeed, once all this was pointed out to me, I saw a lot of it on the convention floor. Salted caramel, which was new and exciting 10 or 15 years ago, is now passé. All the caramel is salted now. Everything is gluten-free. The new fruity flavors are cherry and lime. There are gummies you can dip in gel, gummies that have gel inside them, and gummies with marshmallow on the bottom. Which of the heretofore unseen innovations that surround me—oat milk chocolate, potato-chip-filled peanut butter cups—will become grocery store fixtures in the years to come, and which will quickly devolve into shorthand for “so 2020s”?