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Photograph by Joseph Saraceno; Styling by Wilson Wong

With an M&M’s-and-Starburst-emblazoned lanyard strung around my neck, a samples tote bag slung around my arm and a song in my heart (candy!), I attended Chicago’s Sweets & Snacks Expo on a quest to uncover the future of snacking. This is the largest expo of its kind in North America with vendors covering four acres within McCormick Place convention centre, and it’s here where buyers meet sellers, new products are launched and deals are made over handshakes and Doritos.

In 2017, the confections industry generated more than US$35-billion in retail sales in the United States plus an additional US$58-billion for sweet and savoury snacks including chips, snack bars, nuts and cookies. Much of that business depends on being on trend – and creating new ones.

I tasted my way through hundreds of booths, tried some familiar flavours (Krispy Kreme doughnut-flavoured Jelly Bellys), some bad ideas (Krispy Kreme doughnut-flavoured Jelly Bellys, ahem) and came out the other end with a better appreciation for where the snack-food industry is headed.

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Legume boom

The original and still best lentil chips are poppadoms, a favourite first bite at Indian restaurants. But recently, they’ve been turned into snacks in Pringles-like canisters, such as those on offer from Uncle Saba’s Poppadoms. Salty, studded with cumin seeds and fried to a crisp, they are utterly delicious, and now come in flavours from cilantro to barbecue. Enjoy Life’s Plentils, also made of lentils, are crunchy and airy, but aren’t fried in palm oil, so while tasty (especially the sour cream and onion flavour), they are basically half the fun. Saffron Road’s Crunchy Chickpeas with Bombay spice are spicy, satiating and a good source of protein, which was the foremost recurring snack theme at the show.

Under the sea

Kelp, a type of seaweed, is rich in iodine and potassium. Nori is a type of kelp that, when roasted, becomes a healthy snack food, one we’ve been munching on for years. But why eat plain old seaweed when you can wrap it in rice flour and deep-fry it? That’s what Chomperz Crunch Seaweed Chips have done quite successfully, and won a best new product award at the show. Another winning take on seaweed is Kim Nori Seasoned Seaweed Snack, lacquered with sliced almonds and seasoned with a smoky barbecue flavour.

Salad daze

When I saw what I thought was a bowl of fresh vegetables in a clear bowl across the aisle I thought, “Go home, salad, you’re drunk!” But upon closer inspection it was Tropical Fields Mixed Veggie Chips – crunchy whole broccoli florets, sweet potato slices, onion petals and whole cherry tomatoes, dehydrated, fried and salted. It’s what those extruded vegetable snacks must aspire to be: beautiful and real.

Smart spuds

In a world waking up to the horrors of fresh food waste, Kettle Cooked Uglies Potato Chips aren’t just about clever marketing, but smart business with a conscience. The tag line on the bag says “Always Ugly, Always Delicious” accompanied by some ugly food facts on the back, such as “26% of U.S. produced gets discarded for cosmetic reasons.” Inside, you find lovely sea-salted small-batch chips that have some darker spots and a seemingly deeper potato flavour.

Voted Most Popular

Another award-winner from the show: Big Chewy Nerds. Nerds, the tiny, crunchy, sweet and sour colourful candy that burst onto the scene in 1983, only to fall from fashion decades later, were rediscovered by millennials, which warranted a reimagining for a new generation. These Nerds are crunchy and chewy – they exist at the intersection of Nerd and Skittle. And they are glorious.

Photograph by Joseph Saraceno; Styling by Wilson Wong

Chocolate curiosities

Kopper’s The Original Milk Chocolate Gummy Bears (also available in dark) are the Grey Poupon of the gummy bear world, and have been around for 30 years, so why am I only learning about these now? To that end, I was also introduced to Hammond’s Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate Dunking Spoon, whereby chocolate, flavourings and sea salt are moulded around a wooden spoon that you stir into eight ounces of hot milk until it dissolves and you have a way better incarnation of instant hot chocolate.

Steak yums

People are crazy for protein – on the show floor, grams of protein were proudly displayed on the fronts of packages like blue ribbons at the county fair. Steak naturally has a lot of protein, and Omaha Steaks sells premium steaks, butchered in America’s heartland and delivered to your door. Omaha Steaks Steak Bites are a clever new brand extension. They’re smoked and dried thin pieces of sirloin, marinated and spiced, tender, beefy and delightful. Each serving has 12 grams of protein. Take that, power bars!

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Magic shrooms

The Shiitake Mushroom Chips by new brand MudLrk come in a 100-per-cent compostable bag, contain no preservatives or cholesterol, are non-GMO and are gluten free. In other words, they’re the perfect snack for today’s eco-minded nosher. The “patent pending” bag of little shiitakes that I tasted were seasoned with a take-no-prisoners amount of black pepper and slow-fried in palm oil. Little umami bites full of natural glutamates, they were the biggest innovation I tasted at the show, and the most buzzed-about booth.

Plant-based pretzels

From the Ground Up’s Cauliflower Pretzels look like typical salt-flecked mahogany-hued pretzels and crunch like normal pretzels, but happen to be gluten free, 100-per-cent vegan and they contain one veggie serving per 28-gram snack-sized bag. “These taste like cauliflower,” said the sampler beside me, in what could only be described as an accusatory tone. “That’s the idea,” winked the fresh-faced salesperson at the booth. Plant-based snacks are the party trick of the year.

Protein RX

For people who eat to live, these single shot packets of high-performance protein aim to fill the gap between products aimed at health goals and natural products full of simple ingredients. With clean packaging in bold Helvetica – “1 Egg White, 18 Almonds, ½ date,” these knead-and-squeeze packets come in flavours including honey cinnamon peanut butter and vanilla almond butter. While the label describes them as nut and protein spreads, the athletic gals at the booth said they’re protein shots (9 g), meant to be consumed directly, not spread over toast. They’re no steak, but they are a mouthful of tasty nut butter.

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