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The creators of LOST got it all wrong: If you're an inherently good person and you die, you don’t wind up in a bright, peaceful church in the sky, surrounded by all the wonderful people who have helped you along the way. You end up here, at the Sweets & Snacks 2010 Expo in Chicago. It’s a magical place, really, bursting with 450-plus booths devoted to showering you with every candy and snack product known to man: Giant bins of gummi bears and candy corn; tables covered with massive slabs of fudge; peanut butter-stuffed, chocolate-covered pretzels emptied into your awaiting palms via supersized metal scoops; Jelly Belly’s new mojito-flavored jelly beans; Coconut M&Ms; beef jerky packaged in chewing tobacco tins; vanilla caramels sprinkled with sea salt; chocolate crosses (for all those sweet-toothed Catholics out there); and WONKA Scrumdiddlyumptious Chocolate Bars.
This is a place where you mingle with six-foot-tall dancing M&Ms, where Hello Kitty hawks her Pez candy and Campfire Marshmallows come in a new size—softball. Last year, I ran around the Expo like a wild, screaming banshee, stuffing my bags full of every manner of solidified sugar imaginable. By the end, I was so strung out I could barely speak. This year, I arrived prepared: I sweat through a hardcore spin class and a pilates session beforehand, and ate a healthy tuna fish sandwich prior to entering the sweet pearly gates of Candy Land. I was able to resist stuffing every candy-coated, nougat-y morsel in my face; instead, I stuffed every candy-coated, nougat-y morsel in a giant Sweets & Snacks canvas messenger bag, to be judiciously parceled out over the next year, save for the fourth Tuesday of every month, when all bets will be off.
Among the trends this year:
Welcome to the Dark Side
Milk chocolate is so 1998. Dark chocolate rules these days, thanks to journalists’ tendency (myself included) to tout its antioxidant power so loudly, you’d think you were better off eating Toblerone than olive oil-poached salmon topped with avocado-and-blueberry salsa. It used to be that 65 percent cocoa was as dark as it got, but I found some 85% squares at Green & Black's that was out of this world. (Organic Madagascar vanilla helps balance the bitterness.) Kit Kat Dark premiered, and I visited the Sweet Riot booth—imagine itty-bitty pieces of cacao (the bean from which chocolate is made) coated in dark chocolate. If they’re good enough for Sarah Jessica Parker and Eva Longoria—and People magazine assures me they are—then they’re good enough for me.
Honey, I'm Home!
Likely a result of our nation’s growing obsession with all things natural and organic, candy companies have stepped up production of honey-sweetened snacks. Jelly Belly incorporates real wildflower honey into their new Honey Bean flavor. (In a poll of 11,000 Jelly Belly fans, honey was selected as the most preferred new flavor.) GloryBee Foods HoneyStix are like Pixie Stix filled with natural honey, ready to be torn open and stirred into Greek yogurt, swizzled into iced tea or drizzled on apple slices (that’s for all my Jewish homies out there). And Gimbal’s Honey Lovers jelly beans come in flavors like pomegranate honey and huckleberry honey – plus, with every purchase. Gimbal’s will donate 5 percent of proceeds to the University of California Davis Honey Bee Research.
Everything tastes better drenched in chocolate—including, apparently, potato chips, gummi bears and chocolate chip cookie dough balls. A saintly man at Toblerone offered me a huge strawberry freshly enrobed in melted deliciousness. To the relief of premenstrual women everywhere, M&M’S debuted their new Pretzel Chocolate Candies—pretzel balls dressed in a traditional M&M candy shell. Cherry RAISINETS are Montmorency Tart Cherries drenched in dark chocolate (who cares that they’re called RAISINETS but don’t contain raisins?). And chocolate-covered Peeps—cute little sugar birds dunked in milk or dark chocolate—were the talk of the entire Expo. (Marc Summers, host of Unwrapped, told me these are his favorite. That’s right, I met the Double Dare legend.)
It's a Small World
Maybe it’s a result of the 100-calorie snack pack craze, or maybe candy companies are playing into our "I want to be thin but I also want some caramel" dual mentality, but there's no shortage of tiny temptations hitting the market. New Reese’s Minis are little pinkie-sized blissful bites of milk chocolate and PB. Butterfingers Snackrz pack a peanut buttery punch in a smaller, flatter, crispier bar. Hershey's Drops are miniature bites of cookies 'n' creme heaven. With any of these, you can have a few and still not feel like you owe the Stairclimber three hours.
Loads of Licorice
I can take or leave a Twizzler and only freaks like black licorice, and yet—the stuff was everywhere. I saw dozens of flavors, from green apple to Grape Red Vines. With Rips Whips, your kids can spend hours fashioning edible friendship bracelets; Goetze's Gourmet Licorice Caramel Creams are fortified with calcium and fiber, which means you can skip the balanced steel-cut oatmeal with skim milk breakfast and just tear open some candy instead. Why the renewed interest in licorice? Susan Whiteside, the convention's candy PR gal, suspects it has to do with value—in our economy, people don’t want to spend a lot and licorice just rings true as an inexpensive penny candy from the olden days.
I've Seen the Light
This year, lots of companies are incorporating bubbles, air and layers of crisp into the products, perhaps in an effort to appeal to our waistline concerns. Some examples: 3 MUSKETEERS Truffle Crisp Bar and Bloomsberry Bubble Chocolate. But perhaps nothing trumps Le Whif, an inhalable chocolate product created by a Harvard professor. (It comes in coffee, too.) You get a hit of chocolate with no calories or fat, plus the cool asthma-kid factor will help build your street cred.