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.

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