Scoffs Jeff Brown, the company's director of marketing: "Try bringing four strawberries to school in a lunch box. We serve a purpose."

If daunting obstacles imperil a fresh strawberry's lunch-box voyage from home to school, Brown isn't elaborating on what they might be.

Likewise unanswered is the question of how a Welch's Fruit Snack — or any other product that includes fruit, or whole grains, or any substance that could be considered "healthy" — might be quantified and factored in to a dietary formula that's 90 percent wholesome and 10 percent indulgence.

Professor Sauernoggin works the Toxic Waste Candy booth at the recent Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.
William Rice
Professor Sauernoggin works the Toxic Waste Candy booth at the recent Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.
Jill Robbins developed HomeFree cookies so that her son, who has multiple food allergies, would be able to enjoy snacks with his friends.
William Rice
Jill Robbins developed HomeFree cookies so that her son, who has multiple food allergies, would be able to enjoy snacks with his friends.

Several companies have come to the expo to hawk different variations of chips: hummus chips, whole-grain chips, rice chips, apple chips, yes, even potato chips. ("Has the bar gotten so low?" grumbles Appetite for Profit author Michele Simon. "What about a whole potato with a little butter and salt that you can control?")

Like so much else at the expo, Lundberg Family Farms' rice chips are gluten-free. (Everything this year is gluten-free, even products you wouldn't ordinarily associate with gluten, like, say, hot fudge sauce.) "A lot of brands speak to the gluten-free market," admits Todd Kluger, the man who mans the Lundberg booth. "It's a larger base." And, um, maybe the biggest health-food fad this side of the Atkins Diet? "A fad is not a trend," Kluger protests. "People who are pushed into the 'fad' category think they can lose weight. Then the companies pull away. They can't see the larger market. People who truly suffer will be there."

Ah, there it is: the public service! Feeding chips to the celiac afflicted. Does it even matter how they taste?

Which, patient food cognoscenti, brings us to...seaweed.

"This is the most healthy snack in the whole expo!" declares Russell Moon, spokesman for SeaSnax roasted seaweed. "We're the Star Trek of seaweed snacks: We're taking seaweed where it's never been before!

"It's strangely addictive," he adds. (This is, probably not coincidentally, the company's catchphrase.)

Moon is only slightly daunted to learn that his employer isn't quite flying solo on seaweed's farthest frontier, or, for that matter, at the Sweets & Snacks Expo. Ocean Snacks, which also sells roasted seaweed, has a booth a mere acre or so to the northeast.

Moon's counterpart at Ocean Snacks, Bruce Horn, says schoolchildren in Yorba Linda, California, are positively wild about the seaweed. They even eat it voluntarily! (Not that they've had much choice since it replaced potato chips in the district's vending machines.) He notes regretfully and not without a tinge of pity that he doesn't think St. Louisans will be seeing Ocean Snacks anytime soon, unless they're willing to order it online. "You're going to be one of the last regions to get it," he predicts, adding, "if the culture is willing to adapt to a healthy alternative."

Andrew Smith, the food historian, says the culture is in precisely such a mood. "There are periods when reform comes in, and there's a shift in the diet," Smith notes. "Then the reform movement dies and we go back to excess. Look at Prohibition: They prohibited the sale of alcohol, and twenty years later it was back."

Rick Shea, founder of Shea Marketing, a consulting firm in Minneapolis, has observed this shift, too. But he thinks it's due to the U.S. economy's recent trip down the toilet. "During the recession premium ingredients were held back," Shea explains. "Now there's more attention being paid to health and nutrition. Consumers have a desire to eat better."

And now that they can once again afford to shop at Whole Foods, they're ready to experiment with rice chips.

And seaweed.

Performing Miracles

"'Healthy candy' is an oxymoron," declares Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who just might be the nation's pre-eminent nutrition expert. "People don't want to like eating candy. I do it, too. I look at something and say, 'Oh! I can have it!' It takes away the guilt." (Nestle, whose lengthy vita includes stints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, advisory roles with the Food and Drug Administration and the American Cancer Society and several award-winning books, confesses that her own personal weakness is peanut brittle.)

But what if candy has actual medicinal value?

"Some customers have had Chimes Ginger Chews in the hospital," proclaims company spokesman Andrew Ma. "It helps them after cancer treatments."

Wait, Chimes Ginger Chews help cure cancer?

No, no. "After treatment your stomach feels upset," Ma elaborates. "It's not medical, but it soothes the stomach." The ginger also helps ease morning sickness during pregnancy, he adds.

Then there are Slumberland Snacks' Sleep Squares, which taste like especially grainy flavored Tootsie Rolls (the kind that fall to the bottom of the trick-or-treat bag and stay there) and are crammed with vitamins purported to help you sleep.

"Relaxation products are a bigger business because of the surge in energy products — coffee, energy drinks," says Nancy Murray, who's working the booth. "People are so amped up. Sleep is a big issue. People don't want to take pharmaceuticals. Maybe once in a while, but not all the time."

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