Twenty thousand confectionery professionals, better known as the candy men and women of the world, descended upon Chicago's McCormick Place earlier this week for an expo, turning the normally drab exhibition hall into every one's childhood fantasy, a 2.7- million-square-foot candy store.
"This show takes up about 15 football fields, that's how big it is," said Susan Smith of the National Confectioners Association.
As if that isn't enough, 2,000 brand new kinds of jelly beans, chewing gum, and chocolates from 75 countries were unveiled this year. Alongside these sugary treats, the 2007 All Candy Expo also included cookies and biscuits, crackers, sweet snacks such as breakfast bars and fruit snacks, nuts, savory snacks like chips and pretzels, and meat snacks showcased here for the first time.
Every kid and candy lover's dream come true -- the All Candy Expo is like Halloween, Christmas, and Easter all rolled into one. With booth upon booth, row upon row of colorful candies, heaps of chocolate bars, and dizzying displays filled with lollipops, licorice and chewing gum, the Expo has every candy you could ever possibly imagine, and some you might have never imagined.
Mixed in with all the sugary snacks are some new kinds of "flavor fusion" treats. These confections mix unusual spices with sweets.
For example, take the Spicy Maya -- chocolate laced with cayenne pepper -- or Modena -- vinegar mixed in with strawberry cream. Both concoctions were dreamed up by French chef-turned-chocolatier Michael Antonorsi.
"We have other stuff, like goat cheese with chocolate," said Antonorsi of his latest line of chocolaty creations.
If his company Chuao Chocolates has its way, next time you pop a piece of chocolate into your mouth, it will have picante on the label, and it will burn your throat, in a good way of course, on the way down.
"Our focus is to arouse the senses with our chocolate," he said.
And Antonorsi's not alone in this goal. Antonorsi's mixing of unique and out-of-the-ordinary flavors is the latest trend in the candy and gum industry.
The hope is that the stranger the combination, the more appealing it sounds, the better it tastes, and, thus, the more it sells.
"Americans really like to have interesting flavors, we're adventuresome when it comes to our flavors," said Smith.
Last year, candy sales topped $28 billion in the United States alone, according to the National Confectioners Association. Candy makers are hoping that the introduction of flavor-fused candies will sweeten that market even more.
For now, at least, the verdict is still out on the marketability of these unexpected sweets. However, when people who tried these counterintuitive candies were asked what they thought, most of them actually liked them.
"You're always happy when you get some spice in your chocolate," said one Expo attendee.
"Granular … it's really right in there," said another.
"It could be unusual or unexpected, but it has to be delicious. Otherwise, we're not doing our jobs," said one confectioner.
In a business where plain old milk chocolate used to be enough to whet people's appetites, it now seems that you need both sugar and spice to make everything nice.