Every year, a group of us trek to the Sweets & Snacks Expo at Chicago’s McCormick Place because, duh, it’s a gigantic building filled with free candy, much of it new or unusual. Each year, we try to share that experience with you, poor reader, even though the senses most important to this experience cannot be conveyed through your computer screen. The smell of mascot fur, the sight of a giant copy of Chicago’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture rendered in jelly beans, the taste of candy-corn-flavored M&Ms. One thing we cannot bring you, though we would very much have liked to, is a report about Nestlé’s new Girl Scout Cookies-branded candy bars. They were the talk of the Expo, but no samples were to be had. We’ll bring you a full report when they hit stores. For now, some information on the most notable sweets and snacks from our favorite days of the year.
Herr’s Fire Roasted Sweet Corn Potato Chips, Classic American Hot Dog Potato Chips, & Jalapeno Poppers-Flavored Cheese Curls
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Simple Pleasures with Chocolate Crème
Hershey’s Simple Pleasures line drops June 1 and marks the candy giant’s continued intrusion into the lower-fat chocolate market. Simple Pleasures have 30 percent less fat than other milk chocolate—which may be attributed to their creamy centers, but whatever. They’ll come in both milk and dark chocolate varieties, with both chocolate and vanilla crème centers. We only tried the milk chocolate/chocolate version, but it’s not really anything to write home about. The little coin-sized bite has a weird artificial aftertaste that’s probably the fault of that crème. Sure, the thing tastes of chocolate, but it lacks that satisfying chocolate bite and crunch that a discriminating connoisseur might want. That being said, you could do worse as far as lower-calorie sweets are concerned.
Everybody’s Nuts! Sweet Chili & Garlic And Onion Pistachio
BIGS Flavored Sunflower Seeds
Speaking of suggestive names, who wouldn’t want to shout out at a party, “I want to eat Everybody’s Nuts!”? These in-the-shell pistachios come dusted with strong flavors; the two we tried were the quite-spicy Sweet Chili and the more demure Garlic And Onion, both of which were solid, though slightly overpowering. (It’s tough to taste the pistachio itself over the intense garlic of the latter. Still, delicious.) Other players in the nut-and-seed game this year included BIGS, which introduced three co-branded flavors of sunflower seeds: J.D.’s Bacon Salt Sizzlin’ Bacon, Vlasic Dill Pickle, and Frank’s Red Hot Buffalo Wing. These all packed a nice, salty punch, and we have to praise J.D.’s Bacon Salt company, who’ve been a favorite of Taste Tests over the years.
Old Dominion Hot & Sweet Chipotle Peanut Squares
Old Dominion Peanut Company has an obvious product fixation—it’s right there in the company name—but it’s almost funny, perusing its site and its booth and seeing the sheer number of uses it’s found for peanuts, in brittle, chocolate-dipped, butter-toffee-dipped, and other forms. There’s nothing funny about its new spicy peanut squares, though—they’re essentially mouth-melting brittle. It’s a weird combination—peanut-brittle-like crunchy nuggets, dusted with barbecue spice or chipotle pepper—but they pack an admirable kick, and it’s one of the more interesting and enjoyable combinations of sweet and spicy to come down the line recently. Like so many ultra-new products, these aren’t on the company’s website yet—a rep told us they’re still working on distribution—but look for them in stores soon, and have some milk, or whatever one drinks with spicy peanut brittle, close to hand.
Sahale Crunchers Almond Snacks
Similarly not on Sahale’s website as we head to press: the new “Sahale Crunchers” line of almond snacks. Two of the three Crunchers varieties mix almonds with fruit (cherries and apples in the maple-glazed variety; cranberries in the sesame-seed-and-honey variety), while the third, parmesan and herbs, is just a rich spice blend. The Sahale rep was eager to tell us about all the uses for Crunchers—as an additive to cereal, yogurt, cooked fish, baked brie, and more—but she was possibly getting a little tired, as she repeated herself a couple of times, as if running out of options because we lingered at the booth too long. (No, she did not at any point suggest that Crunchers could be used as a humorous substitute for our own lips, but there was a hint of that reaching-for-more-ideas desperation.) Not that she needed more options; Sahale makes probably the best glazed nuts and nut mixes in the organic-foods market (oh man, those Tuscan Almonds), and these combinations are unsurprisingly worthy of being added to the menu. Also, hey, Sahale, did you mention that they’d work fine on salads?
GloryBee HoneyStix and AgaveStix
Sealed straws full of flavored honey are nothing new—marketers have been selling them for decades as single-serving sweeteners for tea, or a quick organic snack. But GloryBee’s display at the expo was impressively ambitious when it came to sheer range of flavors, from the usual fruit and natural flavors (orange, vanilla, lemon) to a whole range of exotica: amaretto, licorice, chocolate, ginger, root beer, mango, and more. GloryBee’s website also has recipes for even more exotic combinations, like Apple Pie, Mojito, and Mountain Meadow. While a straw full of honey seems like an odd addition to the convention’s lineup of snacks, it was pretty tempting to grab one of everything from this booth and go home and play mad beekeeper scientist.
Nutella & Go!
Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats Buttery Toffee and Chocolatey Chip Big Bars
According to a video on the relatively fascinating Kellogg’s marketing website, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats Bars are the fastest-growing snack bar in convenience stores. That makes sense, because the brand recognition is there, and the treats somehow feel slightly more homemade than traditional candy or granola bars. Enter two new treats, Buttery Toffee and the somewhat disconcertingly named Chocolatey Chip, which may or may not actually contain real chocolate. At the very least, the latter is incredibly sweet, almost too much. Whereas the original Rice Krispies Treat bar could, in theory, at least feasibly pass for some sort of alternate-universe breakfast, this is dessert, straight up. The Buttery Toffee, while definitely leaning toward sugar-rush territory, is a little subtler, with a depth of flavor that’s a really welcome touch. Add to that sentiment the notion that, because the bar is so fresh, it’s delightfully squishy and not at all like the brick-like Treats bars we’ve had before, and we’d buy this any day.
Toblerone Crunchy Salted Almond
Toblerone is one of those unfuckwithable candy bars, but if you’re going to mess with perfection, adding a little bit of salt to the mix is a pretty inoffensive approach. This new bar is almost indistinguishable from a regular Toblerone; there’s a hint of saltiness if you’re looking for it, but that distinctive honey-almond nougat steals its thunder. A slightly heavier hand with the salt might have made this a standout, but as-is, it’s just another pretender to the Swiss-chocolate throne. That said, we have to give Toblerone props for coming back to the expo every year with fresh strawberries and a fondue pot full of melted Toblerone. Who knew the distinctive triangle bars were so good in liquid form?
Snickers 3X Chocolate
You know that satisfying blend of chocolate, peanuts, and nougat that’s provided you with so much Snickers satisfaction over the years? Fuck that, and make room for more chocolate, fattie: Snickers 3X Chocolate adds chocolate flavoring to the nougat and the caramel, in case your craving for chocolate wasn’t satisfied by all that chocolate on top. Then it’s packaged in a blue wrapper—easy to spot. That’s good, because for our money, this 3X is the new way to go in Snickers consumption. It’s thicker, chewier, and tastier than the original model. It’s also in a two-to-go pack, so you can pretend like you’re going to save one for later.
Din Don Flan
Plentils and Black Bean Crisps
One definite trend at the expo this year was an expansion of chip-making source materials: In addition to the usual corn, potato, banana, plantain, and multi-grain chips, and the slightly more exotic puffed-rice chips, we noted a new line of “popped black-bean crisps” (which are textured and shaped much like mini rice cakes, and taste solely like the varieties of flavored salt dusted upon them), various chips made from hummus or chickpeas (and strangely adamant about the distinction), and lentil chips. The Plentils line of lentil chips also taste more like seasoning than anything else—we tried them in sea salt and garlic & parmesan, but they also come in “margherita pizza” and dill & sour cream—but they have an interesting light, airy crunch, not unlike less-porous pork rinds. They’re surprisingly filling for chips, though on a strict calorie-and-fat basis, not much healthier than the average chip. Still, they’re billed as containing “no artificial anything!” and “free of the eight common allergens” (wheat, dairy, soy, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish), so that has to count for something, health-wise.
Jamba Multigrain Fruit Crisps
An even odder addition to the chip market: Jamba Fruit Crisps, which come under the Jamba Juice umbrella of Inventure Foods, but aren’t yet available at either company’s sites. These look like an average lightweight puffed grain chip, but they’re startlingly, pleasantly fruity, much like a good brand of organic fruit cereal. The Jamba stall had these in two varieties—Blueberry Blast and Cranberry Crave—and both were above-average in the taste department. They’re actually a little reminiscent of Pop Tarts in their strong fruit-and-wheat flavor profile, but without the overwhelming sweetness or Pop Tarts’ sugar coating. And according to the packaging, they contain six whole grains (corn, oats, rice, buckwheat, millet, and sorghum) and no cholesterol, though they do contain a pretty-average-for-chips 7 grams of fat per serving. Still, they’re made with fruit. Hopefully they’ll be more widely available soon. That way we can eat a whole goddamn bag of chips and feel like we’re staying healthy at the same time.
Laurel Hill Tortilla Chips
In spite of all of the chip-related exotica, though, the best chips we tried at the expo were almost-conventional tortilla chips that just happened to be delicious. Laurel Hill’s line of corn chips don’t just achieve different flavors with spice blends, they actually incorporate different ingredients into different products. So the Olive & Caper chips are just what they sound like, while the strikingly tasty Pumpkin Seed Chips involve pumpkin baked into the chip, as well as the seeds. The taste isn’t overwhelmingly or artificially pumpkin-ish—they just taste like a richer variety of corn chip. But that richness is mighty damn good.
First you got your chocolate in our peanut butter, and the world rejoiced. Then you Goober Graped us, and 6-year-olds were stoked. Now you’re telling us there’s a candy that not only combines peanut butter and jelly (grape or strawberry) but also covers the whole shebang in chocolate? It must be too good to be true, right? Yes, more or less. Excellent Baron’s insubstantial little peanut-butter-and-jelly bars (each about the size of a Kit Kat finger, and available in grape or strawberry) have pretty good ratios of peanut butter, chocolate, and jelly, but they’re certainly not an anytime snack. And they’re weird. So is the website promoting them, which focuses more on the fruit’s character—the grape has “cousins in juice, raisins, currants, seedless, and wine businesses”—than on the product, what it looks like, and where to get it.
Combos Buffalo Blue Cheese Pretzel
The combination of buffalo sauce and blue-cheese dressing is the stuff of bar-snack legend, and pretzels are right alongside them in the pantheon. Even taking into account Combos’ tendency to disgusting-ify its flavors by 10 to 30 percent, this limited-edition permutation seems pretty can’t-miss. And while the initial aroma upon opening the package stings the nostrils with sharp, buffalo-sauced shame, the salty pleasures contained within almost—almost—overpower it. These things are pure snacking id, oblivious to concerns of healthfulness, quality, or self-respect, but damn if they don’t taste great with a can of cheap beer. At first, the only taste that registers is the over-salted Combos pretzel, but after a few moments, the blue-cheese notes start to emerge and the vinegar of the buff-sauce invades the sinuses, leaving behind a mild tongue-tingle. Eating more than a couple is a recipe for regret, but sometimes regret can be pretty damn tasty.
Nutffles Red Velvet Truffle
Anyone who’s visited one of the nation’s 5 billion cupcakeries can tell you that red velvet is having a moment. Morris National has boring ol’ Almond and Hazelnut varieties of its Nutffles nut-truffles (get it??), but the trendy upstart Red Velvet is the most intriguing flavor. Thing is, it doesn’t taste much like red velvet; the “cream cheese” white chocolate coating tastes like, well, white chocolate, and while the cocoa inside the crispy chocolate-wafer inner shell has a slightly red cast, it’s basically just chocolate goo surrounding a whole almond. Not that a white-chocolate-covered nut truffle is anything to sneeze at—these are perfectly suitable, though sub-Ferrero Rocher level—but red velvet fans would be better off sticking to cupcakes.
Just Born Milk Chocolate Peepsters
While Peepsters aren’t necessarily new to the market, they’re new and notable to us. Coming in both dark chocolate and milk chocolate varieties, Peepsters are bite-sized morsels of marshmallow-flavored cream wrapped in—duh—chocolate. It’s all the joy of eating Peeps-brand marshmallow products with none of the weird crunchiness possessed by month-old bunnies that have been sitting out since Easter. Since we’re not huge fans of Peeps in general, these were a nice treat. They’re a perfect little bite of chocolate and marshmallow together. Now if only they’d make them with a graham-cracker layer at the bottom—then we’d be talking.
Divine Milk Chocolate With Spiced Cookies & Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle
Fair Trade-certified, farmer-owned, “bean-to-bar” chocolatier Divine was displaying some seriously tempting flavors like Dark Chocolate With Hazelnut And Cranberries and Coffee Milk Chocolate, but these two limited-edition flavors were the only ones we could get our hands on. (By which we mean “walk off with while the rep’s back was turned.” Hey, all’s fair in candy and nuts.) And if these are indicative of the rest of the line, you’d do well to buy them all right now. The Spiced Cookies bar has little bits of gingerbread crumbs embedded in its melt-on-the-tongue milk chocolate, and the Dark Chocolate Hazelnut is one of the creamiest dark chocolates we’ve ever tasted. Retailing around $4 a bar, these edge toward the “luxury chocolate” category, but they’re worth the extra dough—especially considering 45 percent of it goes straight to cocoa farmers in Ghana.
Ever thought to yourself, “Skittles are pretty okay, I guess, but they’d be better if the flavors didn’t match their expected colors”? No? Well, here these are anyway. Thing is, without the cognitive suggestion of “red equals cherry” and “yellow equals lemon,” these Skittles all just blend into “generic fruit flavor,” and while the flavor mystery might be intriguing to kids, we’re adults, dammit, we don’t have time for your mind games. Just give us a fuckin’ red Skittle and let us get back to work.
Dove Roasted Almonds Covered In Silky Smooth Dark Chocolate, Raisins And Peanuts Covered In Silky Smooth Milk Chocolate
Dove Cookies & Crème
While we’re not huge fans of white chocolate, apparently the rest of the country is, as sales are up 21 percent since last year. According to Mars, Dove’s parent company, “Within the white chocolate category, the cookies and crème segment is up $105.5 million, an increase of 20.4 percent,” all of which is apparently directly attributable to the Hispanic population, who have “a preference for sweeter products.” Hence Dove’s new Cookies & Cream line of products, which launches this September and will include both bars and smaller, bite-sized “Promises.” As far as the sample we had, simply describing it as “sweeter” is an understatement. Dove Cookies & Crème is a mind-blowing, teeth-shaking sugar blast. We ate one bite and wanted to call our respective dentists and rinse our mouths out with water ad nauseum. It’s like pure cane sugar compressed into a little cube, with tiny sugar “cookie” bits hiding inside. It’s too much, man, just too much.
Skinny Cow Heavenly Crisp Candy Bar, peanut butter flavor
The fine people from Skinny Cow told us that their candy products have been far exceeding their expectations, selling almost twice their initial projections. It makes sense, then, that they’d want to expand into new flavors and concepts. Hence the peanut-butter version of the Heavenly Crisp, which, at only 110 calories, intends to offer all the chocolaty deliciousness of a candy bar without all the fatness. The bar is pretty good, though, and disappeared off our desks in about two seconds. It tastes remarkably like a Nutty Buddy, one of Little Debbie’s enduring lunchtime stars. That being said, it’s 10 calories more than a Nutty Buddy, and those things sell for like $1 a box, so they’re the better bet for non-discriminating customers who don’t mind eating kiddie treats out in the open.
Paradox Baked Goods
Any time we visit a trade show, there’s always that small-market entrepreneur standing at a booth, trying to Ancient-Mariner everyone who walks by. Make eye contact, and you’re committed to hearing about something like “paradox cookies,” the healthy, natural-food, oxidote-laden answer to typical unhealthy cookies. Paradox’s website is laden with information about free radicals, oxidant stress, anti-inflammatories, and so forth, but it all sounds suspiciously like science homework and not like eating cookies. Supposedly you eat them after meals “to decrease the likelihood of sugar and triglyceride spikes in the blood… [that] trigger inflammatory cascades that can lead to cardiovascular and diabetic risk factors,” which is all a paradox because eating cookies makes you healthier, but the cookies themselves were a bit on the chewy-and-cloying side. Looking over the ingredients, it’s no wonder—they’re loaded with dates, prunes, unsweetened chocolate, and maple syrup. Good for you, but they have that energy-bar density and dried-fruit sweetness that says “good for you” more than “good to eat.”
Calico Cottage Orange Cream Fudge
One of the best stops in last year’s expo rounds was the Calico Cottage booth; the company doesn’t sell fudge, it sells pre-mixed ingredients, recipes, equipment, and packaging to retailers who want to start their own fudge business. But its booth features plenty of samples of delicious fudge, and plenty of information about it. Last year, we talked to a rep who was hugely enthusiastic about running down all the details of the business for us; this year, we caught a rep who seemed more cautious, particularly about the details of what was new with the company. While he carefully admitted that Calico Cottage has expanded into a line of cream-cheese-based fudges, he says most of their new recipes come from feedback from their clients, and wouldn’t get into specifics. Guess you’ll have to join the fudge-retailer club to get the secret password and find out more. One way or another, the orange cream fudge we tried out from the new line was amazing.
Albanese Milk Chocolate Double Dipped Peanut Butter Peanuts and more
And speaking of overkill, as usual, we walked out of the Sweets & Snacks Expo vaguely woozy, definitely footsore, and heavily overwhelmed by all the bright lights and noise. If there’s such a thing as a sugar hangover, we have it. But that won’t stop us from going back next year, assuming we’ve run out of stored candy by then.