Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

Happiness is unwrapped at the 2012 Sweets & Snacks Expo.

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Fun fruits and shared sweets, foreign flavors and healthy snacks are on trend, and mango is the flavor du jour – at least according to the 2012 Sweets & Snacks Expo, held in Chicago in May.

Mint, coconut, ginger, cinnamon, cherry, caramel and lemonade also were in abundance at the show, sponsored by the National Confectionery Association (NCA). More than 570 exhibitors (140 new ones) unwrapped a little happiness for 15,000-plus attendees from 70 countries in three blissful acres, the largest gathering in nine years, up 15 percent from last year.

Attendees were greeted by a vibrant concourse including a walk-thru store-front; one-of-a-kind dresses handmade from iconic candy wrappers; and a replica of Chicago's popular downtown sculpture "The Bean," but this one made of 120,000 Jelly Bean Chocolate Dips and Jelly Belly beans. It was designed by students from Kennedy-King College at City Colleges of Chicago.

Speaking of Jelly Belly, the company partnered with Mattel for Special Edition Uno and Apples to Apples games. Bean-shaped cards and actual jelly beans make these competitions a hoot with rewards for all.

Despite a difficult economy, consumer dollars spent on confectionery products continue to rise. Confectionery retail sales have grown steadily since 2007, increasing from $27.4 billion to $32.1 billion in 2011, based on SymphonyIRI data. Valentine's Day sales totaled $972 million; Easter totaled $2.1 billion and Halloween brought in $2.4 billion. Winter holiday sales added another $1.5 billion.

Top growing snack items of 2012

Confectionery (chocolate, candy and gum) ranks as the fourth largest product category in overall food sales and is ranked first when combined with other snacks. These combined snack categories saw retail sales increase a total of 4.7 percent in 2011 to $80 billion.

Being an avowed chocoholic, I headed to Mars Chocolate North America's booth to taste M&M's Dark Chocolate Candies in both Mint and Raspberry flavors. Slightly larger than regular M&M's, the flavors really punch. Mars' Dove Milk Chocolate Covered Raisins & Peanuts are a perfect pairing of roasted peanuts and plump raisins covered in Dove Milk Chocolate. Both are packaged in an eye-catching stand up pouch.

Hand-to-mouth candy is part of the increasingly popular unwrapped bite segment, which has expanded to $1.6 billion annually and emerged as a growth category for manufacturers and retailers.

Brown & Haley introduced Roca Dark, a variation on its original buttercrunch toffee with almonds on the inside. Chocome Bars in 40 varieties of handcrafted chocolate bars from Hungary use decadent and unique ingredients -- crystallized mint leaves, lemon peel and lime chocolate drops, dark chocolate decorated with dried berries and rose petals, or milk chocolate sprinkled with coconut shavings and violet petals.

Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. rolls out Cabernet Matinee, dark chocolate inflused with a hint of blackberry and cabernet, and Dark & Sea Salt Caramel squares. Vosges Chocolate introduces Wild Ophelia, a new retail line highlighting eight American regional flavor profiles including Elvis's favorite Peanut Butter and Banana. Hershey's tasty Simple Pleasures, a line of chocolate with 30 percent less fat, also made its debut at the show.

It's notable that white chocolate is proliferating. Lindt & Sprungli USA Inc.'s Lindor Vanilla truffles have white chocolate centers and shells. Dove Silky Smooth Cookies and Crème is sweet white chocolate and crunchy chocolate cookie bits. M&M's showed a Candy Corn White Chocolate for Halloween. In celebration of Baci's 90th anniversary, Perugina debuted Baci White, filled with gianduia, a whipped chocolate filling blended with chopped hazelnuts, crowned by a whole hazelnut and enrobed in a vanilla scented layer of white chocolate. Baci is the Italian word for kisses, so back at you, Perugina.

Speaking of anniversaries, Kraft Foods' limited edition Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bar celebrates Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee. The Cadbury brand was awarded a Royal Warrant as "manufacturer of cocoa and chocolate" by Queen Victoria in 1854. Life Savers celebrates its 100th with LifeSavers Gummies Coolers. Flavors are inspired by fruit beverages, including Cherry Limeade, Raspberry Iced Tea, Fruit Punch, Blue Raspberry Slushy and Watermelon Breeze. A Whitman's Sampler is sold every 2.5 seconds by Russell Stover Candies, and that iconic yellow box celebrates it's 100th with a 40-oz. 100th Anniversary Collection, including a pamphlet describing the brand's history.

I'm confused enough, but always ready for a challenge. My favorite non-chocolate candies include Wrigley's Skittles Riddles, mysterious colors that don't match the flavors. Starburst Flavor Morph changes from one to two different flavors. Life Savers Gummies Collisions is an assortment of dual-flavored pieces in three flavor combos. And Mystery Smarties from Smarties Candy Co. is an assortment of Traditional, X-treme Sour and Tropical smarties; you can't figure out the flavor by color.

Nestle's Wonka Kazoozles fill strawberry licorice ropes with tangy watermelon. Warheads Sour Twists from Impact Confections are three-color, three-flavor extruded chewy candy twisted together. Untwist them to savor one flavor or bite into all three.

Just Born Inc. confirmed rumors that the legendary candy duo Mike and Ike have parted ways. Mike is a musician at heart, while Ike is an urban artist. You'll get the drift with their new packaging with either Mike's or Ike's name scratched out. Not to worry though. Mike and Ike candies will continue to be offered -- including new, cinnamon-charged HotTamales 3 Alarm, which explodes with three levels of heat: hot, hotter and hottest.

At Kraft Foods, all the buzz is about the launch of ID Gum, packaged in a sleek, folding pack with an unexpected magnetic closure. Once opened, the carton reveals artwork sourced from young emerging artists and individual art on each stick. Teens will love it!

Freshen your breath and quench your thirst with Project 7 Quench The Thirsty Wintergreen Mints. In addition, your purchase provides clean water for a person in need for a year. Or open mouth and insert Hershey's Ice Breakers Duo Mints in Strawberry or Raspberry. This cool product has a fruity side and a smooth side of cooling flavor crystals. Or try Eatwhatever/Jacquii's Eatwhatever Breath two-part vegan fresheners, supposedly a favorite of Angelina Jolie. Swallow the gel cap and suck on the mint.

"There are few other product categories out there that are as beloved as ours," says NCA President Larry Graham. We agree. Write yourself a note to attend the 2013 Sweets & Snacks Expo May 21-23; use Bazooka Juicy Drop Taffy, which comes with a plastic pen containing sour Blue Rebel gel. Say it with taffy.

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