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Got a sweet tooth? Latest trends from the Sweets & Snacks Expo

May 27, 2010 |  5:38 pm

As unemployment continues to stay high and Wall Street’s roller coaster has investors on edge, Americans -- particularly adults -- are gobbling up candy as a relatively cheap way to indulge themselves.

According to the National Confectioners Assn., candy sales were up 3.6% in the U.S. in 2009 -- growth that was just a slight uptick from the nearly 3% rise in 2008.

So what does 2010 look like? NCA officials predicted that confection sales would continue to rise, regardless of how sour the nation’s economy might get. And what will be fueling the nation’s sugar buzz? At this week’s Sweets & Snacks Expo in Chicago, the confection industry’s largest trade show, the wares of more than 400 companies were on display at an event that -- quite frankly -- was a child’s dream and a mother’s nightmare.

Here are some of the things you’ll probably see in stores this year:

Hc Nostalgia sweets: Remember Necco Wafers and candy buttons? Not only are they back -- and back in a big way -- but so are other brands that have consumers recalling simpler times.

Staff from the New England Confectionery Co. said sales of Sweetheart candies have stayed strong during the peak candy holidays (think Valentine’s Day, Easter, etc.), and tie-ins with the latest movie (or pop culture) lines are expanding the brand. For the “Twilight” fans out there, for example, the New Moon Sweethearts Fire and Ice movie boxes feature one box for the series’ male vampire heartthrob Edward Cullen (complete with “I *heart* EC” messages) and another for the werewolf hottie-McHot-hot Jacob Black (with equally sweet notes).

Hammond’s Candies, the Denver-based company known for its handmade ribbon candy and candy canes, said demand for its sweets persuaded executives to expand beyond the Christmas offerings and acquire smaller firms that make items that are appealing year round. (Horehound drops, bags of Chickenbones or chocolate lollipops, anyone? Or how about a strip of McGraw’s rainbow-hued taffy -- made from the original 1908 recipe?)

Bite-size: For the last several years, candy and snack makers have been jumping on the bandwagon of “portion control,” packaging their sweets in 100- or 150-calorie packs. And that trend toward tiny bites remained quite buzz-worthy at the show -- which kind of makes sense, given the ongoing push by consumer groups and Michelle Obama’s war on childhood obesity.

Hershey Co. is rolling out Hershey’s Drops, a bite-size candy about as big as a blazer button, in flavors of milk chocolate and cookies 'n' creme; and the Reese’s Minis, a thimble-sized chocolate and peanut-butter cup. Rival Mars Inc. unveiled its M&M’s chocolate-covered pretzels, as well as Snickers Peanut Butter Squared, which has two pieces of candy per package (each one about the length a matchbox and twice the thickness).

Eco-friendly: Organic -- whatever that actually means these days -- was big among candy marketers. So was recycling: Mars has a line of purses made from candy wrappers adding to its merchandising line. But one of the hotter trends was talk of “chocolate sourcing.” Like the push for Fair Trade coffee, the desire among consumers to know where their cacao beans are coming from had a number of firms bragging that they could trace their candy back to a particular farmer.

The staff at Sweetriot, a New York-based candy company, told attendees about the lives of its group of cacao producers in Latin America, and touted the company’s use of recycled and reusable packaging for its dark chocolate-covered cacao nibs. (And, at one to two calories per nib, they were a pretty tasty way to get a guilt-free chocolate fix.)

Jb Cocktails, anyone? Candy makers are homing in on the current revival of the cocktail culture with flavor profiles aimed at conjuring up a night out on the town.

Tic Tac has -- wait for it -- a pina colada flavor. (Not exactly your father’s breath mint.) There was strawberry daiquiri-flavored taffy at the Primrose Candy booth. And Jelly Belly introduced a series of cocktail-flavored jelly bean packages -- specifically, peach bellini, pomegranate cosmopolitan and mojito -- to join its existing strawberry daiquiri, pina colada and margarita mixes. (How far were they taking this? At the show, the company had folks dressed up as bartenders and mixing up “drinks” of flavored beans in a cocktail shaker.)

Among the most promising was Cholive Co., a small truffle-making start-up from Milwaukee, Wis. One of its signature truffles is a dark chocolate shell, shaped like a cocktail olive, and filled with Vermont whole cream ganache. Each one comes with a skewer that can hang off the side of a glass as part of a restaurateur’s (or at-home hostess') presentation. It seemed  far cooler -- and far more tasty -- than having a chocolate-coated rim on a martini glass or chocolate shavings floating in a sweet drink.

PJ And finally, under the category of “what the…?!?”:

It wouldn’t be a snacks and candy show without some completely out-there ideas.

But even in a world filled with seemingly oddball tastes, the folks behind Perky Jerky might actually be on to something.

That’s right: It’s being billed as dried meat with a boost. The idea came about when company founder Brian Levin had an energy drink spill on his lunch. The result is a mixture of beef, soy sauce, spices and guarana, which does have caffeine (though the company says it’s just used for flavoring).

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photos (in order of appearance): Show display case of candies by Hammond's Candies; Jelly Belly "bartender" mixes up candy samples; a Sweets & Snacks Expo attendee tries a sample of Perky Jerky. Credit: P.J. Huffstutter / Los Angeles Times