DOWNTOWN — Candy Land is a real place, people.
For a few days every year, the Sweets & Snacks Expo rolls into town and transforms McCormick Place into a wondrous maze of lollipops, marshmallows, chocolates and pretty much anything else made with sugar (or Stevia, as the case may be).
Attendees do not paddle from booth to booth along a chocolate river. A convention is still a convention, even if it is sponsored by Mars. [All photos DNAinfo/Patty Wetli]
Supposedly the expo, held last week, is serious business — it's where the people who make sweets and snacks (think Hershey) meet the people who distribute sweets and snacks (think Wal-Mart).
At least that's the official excuse behind the expo's "keep out" sign when it comes to members of the general public.
Having finally managed to infiltrate the event after years of standing on the outside looking in, sweet tooth pressed against the glass, I discovered what the event's organizers really don't want the rest of us to know.
The expo is a bacchanalia of free samples.
Where I had pictured a convention floor filled with operatives employed by Arthur Slugworth, the truth is espionage is the last thing on anyone's mind — they're too busy fighting over complimentary packets of gummies.
Attendees' first stop, I quickly learned upon entering the expo, is the "bag booth." This is where I picked up a tote — after my badge ID was scanned and hole-punched so that I couldn't obtain more than one sack — which I was then encouraged to stuff to the gills with loot.
(McCormick staff and/or security stopped anyone trying to exit with more than a single official tote. My bag was hole-punched upon leaving so I couldn't empty it and return for more booty.)
How many sweets and snacks can fit into a single tote bag? This many.
This being my first rodeo, I made a number of rookie mistakes, starting with accepting four — FOUR — boxes of Pocky when one would do. That cost precious space in my carryall, as did my love of popcorn. So much wasted air in those puffed up bags.
Apple chips — another huge guilt-induced gaffe. They weren't even coated in caramel. What was I thinking? Better yet, what was this exhibitor thinking?
I did manage to hold the line on protein bars, which, IMHO had no business crashing this party, and chocolate, because chocolatiers don't play the sample game — you have to consume their nibbles on site.
At least I didn't try to pocket anyone's display, which apparently was enough of a problem that at least one exhibitor was forced to post impromptu signs stating, "These are not samples. Give us a break people."
After three or four hours of noshing on nothing of nutritional value, I gotta say, even gluttony had its limits.
As I made my way toward the exit, an exhibitor flagged me down. "Sample?" he asked, proffering a foil-wrapped chocolate bunny.
I almost said no. To free candy. Almost.
In between sampling, I did manage to get the scoop on what's new and what's on trend in the sweets and snacks world.
Here's the sugar buzz:
• Selfie Candy: Boncha Boncha, a five-year-old "food customization tech company" based in Taiwan, can turn selfies into mints. Customers upload a photo and Boncha prints the image onto the candy in FDA-approved edible ink. This screamed wedding favor to me, but Boncha also pitches it to corporations as a great canvas for logos.
How do they taste? Palatable. Does it matter? Your face is on a candy.
• Pickle Ice: Wisconsin-based Van Holten's is known for its "pickle-in-a-pouch" snacks sold at places like 7-Eleven and Sam's Club.
The company's latest creation, Pickle Ice, is essentially frozen pickle juice, which is naturally low in calories and rich in electrolytes, making it an excellent no-sugar-added alternative to Gatorade, according to Eric Girard, VP of sales and marketing.
Pickle Ice also works as a hangover cure, Girard claimed, making it an excellent alternative to wanting to die.
• Stuff'n Mallows: For the extremely culinary-challenged, Stuff'n Mallows reduces the number of ingredients in S'mores from three to two by combining marshmallows with chocolate chips.
Three recent college grads — Paul Jenkins, Tyler Krenzelok and James Schrack — cooked up the idea for the mallows during an entrepreneurship class at Colorado State. "We got an 'A' on the project," said Jenkins.
The guys cobbled together $10,000 in startup funds in 2013 and originally sold their product in a single store. Now they're taking aim at Jet Puff's 95 percent share of the $250 million marshmallow market.
• Popcorn Is the New Bacon: According to numerous sources, popcorn as a snack category has been experiencing double-digit growth for the past several years and shows no sign of slowing.
Working in popcorn's favor: Insiders said it's viewed as a "healthy indulgence," which sounds like an oxymoron.
Heavy on the indulgence end of the spectrum is Cookie Pop, poised, in my opinion, to become the next BIG THING.
It's popcorn plus Oreo crumbs and why is this just being invented?! Though I personally think the recipe could benefit from a tad more salt, that didn't stop me from turning the six-serving bag into a single meal.
• Express Yourself: Emojis as candy are a natural fit. In fact, it's kind of hard to believe the cartoonish characters were created as a communications shorthand first, Pez dispenser second.
Next time you're having a rage stroke, go ahead, eat those feelings.
• Everybody Wants a Piece of the American Pie: Americans didn't invent candy or snacks, but it kind of feels like we perfected the eating of them. So it makes sense that other countries want to cash in on our insatiable appetite for junk food. I suspect most of their offerings will suffer the same fate as the macaron when it attempted to supplant the cupcake.
Japan would like to convert us into fans of Umaibo, the country's beloved puffed corn (or cheese) stick. It's edible but is it likely to dethrone Cheetos? No.
French-based Bakerly makes a non-GMO, preservative-free version of a "healthy Twinkie." Mon dieu! GMOs and preservatives are precisely what makes the Twinkie so delicious.
Straight from Narnia comes Turkish Delight. Actually, this treat is from, as the name suggests, Turkey but most Americans will know it from the C.S. Lewis classic "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe." It's kind of like a fruit-and-nut studded cross between marshmallow and artisanal nougat (which Americans already shy away from). I tried a sample flavored with pistachio and pomegranate that was plenty tasty but serving it at a Super Bowl party would be like wearing an evening gown to a barbecue.
Your inner 7-year-old's mind just exploded.
Chocolatiers don't play when it comes to sampling.
Candy kebabs, because of course.
Stuff'n Mallows takes the guesswork out of S'mores.
Does anyone really want a "healthy Twinkie"?
Turkish Delight is plenty tasty but would be wildly overdressed at a Super Bowl snack buffet.
Pez is crying tears of joy that emojis have made the candy relevant again.
Umaijo is the No. 1 snack in Japan and it wants to conquer the U.S. market. Apparently they haven't heard of Cheetos.
Creamsicle is the fudge we never knew we've always wanted.
Still probably healthier than Chicago deep dish.
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