In the late eighteenth century, the era of the Declaration of Independence, the term "happiness" was synonymous with "prosperity." Here at the Sweets & Snacks Expo, that almost goes without saying — for the vendors, anyway. For the buyers and distributors, who are here to invest money on behalf of consumers, happiness will have to take on some other meaning.

It's almost a philosophical conundrum: In a growing and increasingly fragmented market, where the possibilities of a simple square of chocolate have become infinite, what combination of factors will bring the greatest amount of "happiness" to the greatest number of people?

Speakers overhead blare the Four Seasons chestnut "Candy Girl" to summon stragglers from the Au Bon Pain downstairs. And then all goes quiet for a split second as the ribbon is sliced through.

Sometime St. Louisan Darryl Strawberry was at the expo to promote All-Stars for Charity fruit snacks and sign autographs.
William Rice
Sometime St. Louisan Darryl Strawberry was at the expo to promote All-Stars for Charity fruit snacks and sign autographs.
Gamer Grub, the first snack mix developed especially for video game-players, sharpens your wits and ensures you can eat without pressing Pause.
William Rice
Gamer Grub, the first snack mix developed especially for video game-players, sharpens your wits and ensures you can eat without pressing Pause.

And then the crowd of buyers surges forward (slowed only by security guards who must scan the barcode on each badge), eager to spend the next two and a half days in pursuit of happiness in all its manifold guises.


Surviving Third Grade

There's a mythical character frequently invoked at the Sweets & Snacks Expo. She's wise and sensible and sometimes even bothers to read the lists of ingredients that appear on packaging. This makes her the ultimate arbiter of nutrition versus convenience and value versus pleasure. The vendors speak of her with awe, mostly because she's the one who makes all the family's purchasing decisions.

Her name is Mom.

For many of the vendors, even the females who happen to have children, Mom remains a vague, though benevolently frightening, construct; they just know that even if they have the so-called nagging factor in their favor, they won't get anywhere without her approval.

At the booth for HomeFree Treats, though, there's an actual Mom: Jill Robbins, whose son contends with the holy trinity of food allergies: peanuts, dairy and eggs. He also has an intolerance for gluten. (Contrary to popular perception, gluten — a protein found in wheat and other grains that gives baked goods their chewy texture — is not an allergen.) Perhaps because Robbins is a clinical psychologist, she and the boy spent a lot of time discussing his feelings about food. "He felt left out a lot," she says. "On social occasions there would be baked goods that he couldn't have."

Unlike the mythical Mom — who is, above all, a consumer — Robbins began baking for her son so he could have cookies in his lunchbox. Gradually it dawned on her: Given that one in twenty-five Americans has some sort of food allergy, mass-producing her cakes and cookies would amount to a public service.

So she sought out a bakery free of peanut cross-contamination (no one's allowed in if they've so much as consumed a single peanut earlier in the day). Her treats are kosher certified and carry the imprimatur of the Whole Grains Council, confirming that they're a legitimate source of whole grains.

The upshot being that the only sort of person who might have a problem with HomeFree products would be a diabetic, because the confections contain sugar. (Not a lot, but some.)

"It's a wholesome product that tastes good," Robbins sums up.

Well, actually...it doesn't. Not if you possess a reliable taste memory of homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Or even Chips Ahoy! Robbins' is a chocolate-chip cookie of last resort, a cookie for a person who'd risk serious bodily harm if he or she ingested any other kind but still refuses to give up the dream. (On the bright side, they're an agent in the other childhood war against bullying: No one would ever steal these from a lunchbox. Not twice, anyway.)

HomeFree cookies' candy analogue might be Sun Cups, which are aimed at the Mom whose kids have peanut allergies. Instead of peanut butter, these Reese's simulacra — incrementally superior to HomeFree chocolate-chip cookies on the knockoff scale — are filled with sunflower butter. As you might expect, the serrated chocolate cup could pass in a pinch, but the sunflower-seed purée within is bland and lacks the grainy, sugary texture of the beloved Reese's. In other words, it's clearly a "special" candy.

"Here's where candy runs against itself," says Steve Almond, author of the memoir-slash-ode to sweets Candyfreak. "People's mouths know candy. It's the most exquisite instrument. If you fuck with the recipe for Snickers one iota — if you mess with the calibration of caramel or the proportion of cream — people immediately recognize it."

Some nutrition experts take the extreme position that if Mom really gave a hoot about her children's health, gluten and allergens be damned, she wouldn't feed them cookies or candy, period. "There's a lot of making parents feel like they have to give their kids treats," observes Michele Simon, an attorney and the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. "There's a lot of messaging that it's win/win if you give kids 'healthy treats.' But you can't make healthy junk food."

Either Smith has not factored in the effects of peer pressure and nagging, or she's an idealist of the highest order. Or maybe she has in mind one of the most exceptional products on display at the expo, coincidentally located only a few booths down from HomeFree: the Chiquita banana.

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