Take Me to Your Feeder: Welcome to the world's largest candy convention. Be advised: Resistance is futile. 

More than 550 candy and snack companies came to this year's Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.

William Rice

More than 550 candy and snack companies came to this year's Sweets & Snacks Expo at McCormick Place in Chicago.

For a trade show that's supposed to be promoting the sale of happiness, the scene at the National Confectioners Association's annual Sweets & Snacks Expo at Chicago's McCormick Place is, well, grim. It's true that excessive cheerfulness is hard to come by at 8 a.m., even when there's free coffee, but the crowd in the grand ballroom, comprised mostly of grocery buyers and distributors, appears nearly lifeless. They sit silently in the ranks of long tables, each row punctuated by tiny plates of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Hershey's Kisses, York Peppermint Patties and miniature Kit Kats. Every now and then, someone will absentmindedly grab a piece of candy, but mostly the freebies go ignored.

Everyone is listening, some more intently than others, to Steve Matthesen, an executive at the Nielsen Company who has been brought in to deliver a keynote speech on "The State of the Confectionery and Snack Industry." Matthesen has never actually worked in the confectionery and snack industry, mind you (though he did serve in the U.S. space program); his twin areas of expertise are marketing and statistics.

"It's pretty ugly out there," Matthesen informs his drowsy audience. He will use the word "ugly" at least five more times during his fifteen-minute talk. Retail sales in 2010, he points out, were down from the prior year. And 2011's shaping up even worse.

This comes as news to precisely no one. But, hey, it could be worse! They could be selling cars. Or yachts. Or private islands. In comparison, pushing buck-fifty candy bars doesn't seem so bad.

"You sell indulgences," Matthesen soothes. "Sweets and snacks are inexpensive, and they make you feel good." Also news to no one; "inexpensive indulgence" is one of the bywords of the candy and snack industry.

Even amid the overall downturn, there have been rays of sweet and/or salty sunshine. Chocolate and potato chips were two of the biggest-growing categories in all of food retail last year, showing an improvement of 4 percent over 2009. But when you're used to growing 10 percent every year, 4 percent ain't so hot. In fact, it's downright lousy.

Above Matthesen's head, on the ballroom ceiling, magenta and white lights swirl in an endless pattern. They resemble nothing so much as Good & Plenty, those medicinal-looking capsules of candy-coated black licorice that for a time were manufactured in St. Louis (they're now part of the Hershey Company). This does nothing to lift the mood of despair: Is there anyone alive who actually likes Good & Plenty?

But wait! Matthesen has some good news!

People are still shopping at Whole Foods Markets, and they will pay a premium, provided they think a product is good for them.

Take Greek yogurt. It costs twice as much as regular yogurt. In the past year, its market share has grown by more than 10 percent, and its revenues have doubled, while sales of non-Greek yogurt have pretty much stagnated.

And that can happen for candy manufacturers, too!

Right now, says Matthesen, the average retail price of premium candy — you know, like the stuff made from high-quality cacao beans handpicked in the Amazon jungle and guaranteed to reduce your blood pressure, melt off body fat and make your hair shiny — is 83 percent higher than a regular old Hershey bar.

What's that got to do with Greek yogurt? Matthesen's glad you asked! "Asians are eating more yogurt," he says. "You should try to combine candy with yogurt."

Unfortunately, not a single candy manufacturer — the "vendors," in Expo parlance — is in the room to receive this pearl of wisdom. They're all out on the convention floor putting the finishing touches on their booths before the big ribbon cutting at 10 a.m. Doesn't matter, though; they know all about Whole Paycheck and its fabulous markups on healthy, wholesome food. That's where a large percentage of them are aiming their sales efforts — never mind that the very source of candy's appeal is that it's not supposed to be healthy.

Out in the hallway, a crowd begins to gather. Whoever invited the keynoters neglected to inform the ribbon-cutting logisticians that they'd be staging a rousing welcome for a crowd that looks like it just walked out of a funeral. Emerging from the ballroom is like being jolted into consciousness after a brutal Friday-night bender and staggering smack into the blinding (and commercially inspired!) world of a Saturday-morning cartoon.

Sunlight streams in through the skylights, illuminating a chorus line of dancing Peeps, Lemonheads, Oreos, M&M's, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, GooGoo Clusters and Hershey's Kisses. Not to mention Mr. Jelly Belly himself, along with several dozen badge-wearing conventioneers, including a few in business suits, twirling and stomping and fist-pumping in unison (more or less).

The message is clear: Even in the pit of a bitter recession, candy continues to represent happiness in a little foil package! Not only that; happiness also comes in sealed bags of salty potato chips, pistachios and beef jerky! With 551 exhibitors occupying the three-acre convention floor just on the other side of the plastic ribbon — which will, in just a moment, be sliced asunder by the presidents of the National Confectioners Association and Chicago-based Jelly Belly (and Mr. Jelly Belly, the red and puffy mascot of honor) — there should be more than enough happiness to go around.

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.

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.

Yes, it's sweet. And yes, it makes for a good snack. But still....

"Why are we here?" Rob Adams, who's manning the booth, evidently is equipped with telepathic powers. Or maybe he has just heard the question several thousand times today. "The banana is a perfect snack! It even comes in its own biodegradable packaging. We are an oasis."

"We're taking a stand," adds his colleague, Jill Greer. "It's nice to have a healthy option if you're diabetic."

"There's sugar-free candy," Adams posits.

"It tastes terrible," Greer retorts. "Haven't you ever stolen your grandma's candy?"

Bananas are in high demand at convenience stores, thanks to Chiquita Brands International's delayed-ripening technology, which allows the company to keep the fruit from producing ethylene, the hormone that causes it to ripen. But who wants to be the only one at the birthday party peeling a banana while all the other kids tuck into chocolate cake?


Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways

Chiquita, it turns out, has brought the one and only honest-to-God fruit at the Sweets & Snacks Expo. But there are plenty of fruit-like products. The manufacturers of Thinkfruit take pride in the fact that their chewy fruit snacks were once real apples and peaches and berries that hung on real trees and bushes before they were sliced up, dried out and packed into pouches. "We use whole berries and lots of sugar — natural sugar," boasts Thinkfruit spokesman Tracy Schulis.

Not all that many years ago, openly advertising that you used sugar would have likely found you searching for a new career. Food historian Andrew Smith notes that as the campaign against tooth decay gained traction in the 1960s, the food industry responded by introducing high-fructose corn syrup. It didn't taste much different from sugar, but it kept food from getting stale or growing mold; after a year on the shelf, your candy would taste the same as it did when you stowed it there. Because it was made from corn, it wasn't subject to the government tariffs on sugar, so it cost less. And perhaps best of all, it wasn't called sugar. What a coup!

In all the excitement, everybody forgot that the "fructose" portion of "high-fructose" is, you guessed it, a sugar, and, as such, caused cavities. More recently, scientists have learned that the body (be it experimental rat or human) is unable to process high-fructose corn syrup as thoroughly as it processes sugar, because high-fructose corn syrup contains extra molecules the body has no use for. And those get converted into fat, specifically abdominal fat, which contributes to heart disease and diabetes.

This discovery happened to coincide with reports of a nationwide obesity epidemic. All of a sudden plain old cane sugar doesn't seem quite so bad — though the fact that some food manufacturers are bragging about it baffles even their target audience, the folks at Whole Foods Market Inc. "It's really weird," says Nicole Carpenter, a marketing and communications specialist at the Austin, Texas-based grocery chain.

Adds Carpenter, candidly but prudently: "You'll still gain weight if you eat our candy."

Still, Thinkfruit and its freeze-dried kin can tout one significant advantage over the natural substances from which they were derived: They'll be able to sit on a supermarket shelf for a year, maybe more.

On Day Two of the expo, Joy Bauer, nutritional guru-in-residence at the Today show, delivers a keynote lecture on healthy eating. Eat more whole grains, she exhorts her audience, and eschew whole-milk products in favor of low-fat dairy. If 90 percent of what you eat is good for you, reasons Bauer, you can use the remaining 10 percent for indulgences.

Unfortunately, Bauer reports, the average American eats 2.23 snacks a day, or 24 percent of his or her caloric intake. That means Joe Shmoe needs to reduce his daily snacking by more than half. Which poses a problem for the vendors who want — no, need — people to snack more. (True, people could buy snacks and not eat them, but that's the sort of exercise in folly the Einsteins among us euphemistically refer to as a "thought experiment.")

Oddly, Bauer had been much more severe on TV only two days prior, when she lambasted snack manufacturers during a Today segment, pointing out how they print exaggerated health claims on their packaging. It so happens that one of the companies Bauer singled out for castigation, Welch's (and, specifically, Welch's Fruit Snacks), has ponied up for a booth at the expo. Following her speech, Bauer seeks out the Welch's reps and apologizes for humiliating them in front of a national audience.

"She said the [show's] producers had brought the product and told her to talk about it," recounts Jody King, a marketer for Welch's. King says she accepted the apology, reasoning, "She said four strawberries are better than our product, and that's true." (Bauer also noted how Welch's makes a big deal about how a single packet of Fruit Snacks contains an entire day's supply of Vitamin C, which doesn't even begin to make up for the fact that the product also contains artificial colors and flavors, not to mention corn syrup — albeit not of the high-fructose variety.)

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.

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."

Can't they just lay off the Red Bull? Or meditate?

"With a 24/7 technological lifestyle, people don't have time for meditation," Murray says, almost ruefully. Then she points out an additional advantage to taking your sleep supplement in the form of a piece of candy as opposed to a pill: There's no water involved, so you don't have to get up in the middle of the night to pee! (There is, however, a nasty-tasting residue that sticks to your teeth.)

"Sleep Squares?" marvels Nestle. "That's really funny!"

Even more miraculous is Maramor Chocolates' Functional Chocolate, which contains probiotics. "Probiotics are healthy bacteria," sales rep Doug Ferrell instructs. "It's a powder that's blended into the chocolate. It also has omega-3s. There was a guy with cirrhosis who said the candy helped clear it right up!"

Is it legal for candy marketers to say stuff like that?

In 1994 the FDA decreed that you can't add vitamins to junk food in order to make it appear healthier, thus settling an intense debate about whether foods that contain no fat or sodium but also no nutritional value whatsoever could be labeled "healthy." But the "Jelly Bean Rule," as it came to be known, suffers from a significant flaw: It has proven virtually unenforceable. "There are so many companies doing it," Simon says. "The FDA doesn't have the proper funding and oversight — it does what it can, but it can't stay on top of marketing claims." Perhaps it's only fitting, then, that we can, if we so choose, stave off fatigue with Sport Beans, "energizing jelly beans" fortified with vitamins, electrolytes and carbohydrates proven through scientific research (performed on one lone group of sixteen bicyclists — but hey, still research!) to enhance athletic performance.

Some companies have gone to court to defend their right to extravagant marketing claims, citing the First Amendment. One notable example: Pom Wonderful, whose pomegranate juice prevents heart disease and prostate cancer and cures erectile dysfunction.

As ridiculous as some of these claims might sound, the fact remains that people want to believe them.

"It's a problem now," says Steve Gardner, litigation director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group known to its detractors as the "Food Police." "Food companies are trying to make foods into drugs, things that will prevent heart disease — all sorts of things. People really believe those ads. There's a health crisis. People can't afford to go to the doctor, but they can afford to buy Cheerios."

Gardner is referring to a warning letter the FDA sent to General Mills, manufacturer of Cheerios, admonishing the company to stop claiming that eating its breakfast cereal would lower one's cholesterol. (General Mills complied.)

Last year Gardner was part of a team of lawyers that successfully took Coca-Cola to U.S. District Court to force the company to lay off asserting that its vitaminwater — a product Gardner dismisses as "sugar water with a dusting of vitamins" — can prevent disease. He's a habitual reader of nutrition labels. He doesn't believe in vitamins. ("If you're eating properly," he says, "you're getting enough nutrients. Except calcium if you're an old person or folic acid if you're a pregnant woman.") He understands that you'd have to eat a ridiculous quantity of Cheerios or probiotic candy to enjoy any perceptible health benefit. And even he has been taken in.

Not long ago he bought a bag of "natural" marshmallows at his local Whole Foods in Dallas. It wasn't till he got home that he noticed that the product was made with — of all things — high-fructose corn syrup — a substance that the grocery chain includes on its own website's page listing "unacceptable" ingredients.

"I got snookered by 'em," Gardner says sheepishly. "I wasted money on marshmallows! And I know! I'm a careful, skeptical consumer!

"People will catch on if someone tells them the truth," Gardner continues. "But if food marketers told the truth, they wouldn't sell anything."

Which reminds him of a famous line from Animal House:

"You fucked up. You trusted us."


Saving the World

Spend two days listening to people telling you how nutritious and good their sweets and/or snacks are, and you might begin to wonder if anybody out there actually cops to being, you know, unhealthy. Surely there's no shame in selling a little slice of decadence if it tastes good.

Like pork rinds, for instance.

"Pork rinds have zero carbs," protests Greg Stanton of Rudolph Foods, the world's largest pork-rind producer. "They're gluten-free. They're a relatively healthy snack."

What Stanton really wants to chat about, though, is National Pork Rind Day. If you go to voteporkrinds.com and cast a vote — be it yea or nay — on whether to establish National Pork Rind Day, Rudolph will donate a dime to Wounded Warriors, an organization that helps injured U.S. soldiers readjust to civilian life. "It's an outstanding cause," Stanton points out.

Unlike the health benefits of pork rinds, that's a difficult claim to dispute. The voting will continue until Rudolph has doled out $10,000.

If the dream ever comes true, Stanton's hoped-for holiday will coincide with the annual contesting of what he cagily refers to as The Big Game. "That's the Super Bowl, but we can't say that because of trademark reasons," Stanton says. "Pig skins and pigskins go together."

Rudolph Foods' charitable initiative has nothing on candy maker Ritter Sport. Every time someone purchases one of Ritter's new milk-chocolate strawberry crème bars, the German company will make a donation to the Leslie Simon Breast Care and Cytodiagnosis Center at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. The goal is $100,000. (Strawberry crème is pink, like breast-cancer ribbons.)

The folks behind Project 7 probably aren't impressed with the largess of Rudolph or Ritter Sport. The tiny company, which boasts a staff of eight, trades in coffee, T-shirts, gum, mints and water and has pledged a portion of everything it sells to one of thirteen different nonprofits that support Project 7's seven pet causes. (Customers can learn which worthy cause they're supporting by reading the label: Feed the Hungry Peppermint Vanilla Gum, Heal the Sick French Roast, etc.) The percentages vary, but during the first quarter of 2011, Project 7 planted more than 120,000 fruit trees, distributed 131,000 meals, donated malaria treatments for 1,800 people and provided 1,900 people with a year's worth of clean water.

"It's a trend," says Project 7 spokesman Darren Dunham. "More and more people require their favorite snack company to do more in the world than stack money to the moon."

Even the expo itself is getting in on the action. At the end of the convention, every participating company has agreed to donate any leftover sweets and/or snack samples to soldiers serving overseas. To further buck up our candy-deprived troops, attendees are encouraged to write uplifting messages on their badges.


Salvation

Some poor souls were convinced this year's Sweets & Snacks Expo was destined not to take place at all.

May 21, the previous Saturday, was to have been the date of the Rapture, according to the virally disseminated prognostication of Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping. (When the day passed without incident, Camping recalculated and announced that the Almighty had rescheduled for October 21.)

Brian Adkins, owner of Scripture Candy, and his partner Mac McCarron aren't so sure. "I don't think God would tell somebody about the Rapture," McCarron muses. "It would make His Word invalid."

Scripture Candy doesn't concern itself with matters as esoteric as the Rapture. Its mission is to spread the Gospel through candy. The enterprise began in 1991, when Adkins was driving around his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, listening to a Focus on the Family broadcast on the car radio.

"There was a story about the occult and all the negativity attached to Halloween," he remembers. "I thought: 'Why not take candy and turn it into Scripture — use a pagan holiday to glorify God?' It's the only time of the year our lost neighbors come to our door and allow us to witness to them. We should take advantage of the opportunity to plant the seed of God's Word in their lives."

Adkins kicked off with mints that came in a tin imprinted with quotes from the King James Version of the Bible. The company has since branched into lollipops, candy corn ("Promise Seeds") and jelly beans that represent different aspects of Christianity.

The jelly beans have caused some confusion at the expo.

"People come by and say, 'We'd like to taste Sin and Jesus' Blood,'" Adkins relates. "We have to tell them that those aren't the actual flavors."

Although Scripture Candy is now available all across the United States and ships to nineteen other nations, the product has yet to become a household name. That said, the company has been, in Adkins' words, "very blessed" — and likely never more so than on the morning of Day Two of this year's Expo, when two nuns stop by the Scripture booth to discuss purchasing some candy for their school. Deferring to his partner's Catholicism, Adkins lets McCarron close the sale. Leaning back against the company's display and taking it all in, he can't contain his elation.

"Man!" he hoots. "It don't get no better than this!"


Sloth

By Day Three the smallest scintilla of desperation has crept into the heart of even the most seasoned Expo-goer. Isn't anyone on the convention floor willing to admit to not giving a good goddamn about the public's health, emotional well-being or mortal soul?

"I don't know why people insist that candy should be healthy," says Zel Peterson, marketing manager of the venerable Ferrara Pan Candy Company, manufacturer of Lemonheads, Boston Baked Beans and Atomic Fireballs. "We believe candy should be eaten in moderation — a treat or a reward. You can't eat an entire case and expect to feel healthy."

Peterson's company, of course, possesses a built-in control: Who could possibly eat an entire case of Lemonheads?

Over at Kraft — which, with its gauzy white curtains, pink lighting scheme and nary a snack or sweet to be seen, bears a disconcerting resemblance to a bordello — company mouthpiece Gary Washburn says he can't address his products' happiness factor or lack thereof "for legal reasons." Told his line of argument was not unanticipated, he says, "Good, we don't wanna talk to you," then disappears into a tiny room at the back of the display and slams the door.

But then there is Gamer Grub, a product designed exclusively for the video-game devotee. "You just tear and tilt," instructs founder Keith Mullin. "There's no grease or crumbs on the keyboard," he elaborates. "It's a pain to hit Pause, and I got tired of wiping my hands on my shirt."

Is it healthy? "It's the gaming community," Mullin shrugs. "Who's healthy in the gaming community? It's healthier than Domino's Pizza or Fritos or Cheetos."

At last: a product with no redeeming value aside from the simple pleasure of eating it!

And then Mullin has to go and spoil the moment.

"It contains a vitamin for fast thinking!" he says. "A very well-known lab developed the vitamin mix that improves cognitive functions. On our website there are 35 scientific papers that support the science."


Air Contains Zero Calories

How hard it must be to make people happy! Even the giants seem to be feeling the pressure. Hershey's, which occupies one of the largest and most ostentatious of Expo booths, has resorted to pumping out onto the convention floor the smell of chocolate cupcakes being baked. There are no chocolate cupcakes being baked, of course, but it's a fair approximation of the smell, if faintly chemical. Inside the booth smiling marketing girls give away actual chocolate cupcakes covered in white frosting, which conventioneers can accessorize with the Hershey's products of their choice.

This Wonka-worthy wonderland has been erected to promote Hershey's newest bar: the Air Delight. The company has plastered ads for its chocolate debutante all over Sweets & Snacks Expo literature, touting how much "lighter" it is than the old-school Hershey's Milk Chocolate Bar.

That's because it's filled with air bubbles that occupy tiny plots of real estate, whereas its heftier sibling contains, well, chocolate. All those bubbles amount to precisely ten fewer calories and one less gram of fat than Hershey's mainstay. And truth be told, the Air Delight is a blatant rip-off of competitor Nestle's Aero.

No matter. Because like everyone else, Hershey's is trying. They need to.

"It's a perpetual American story," notes Candyfreak memoirist Steve Almond. "To me there's a kind of poignancy to it: They're marketing to people who want to make a bad deal. That's what Americans do. 'Have a Coke and a smile!' 'Snickers really satisfies!' If it's in Whole Foods, it's gotta be healthy!"

But if the candy's good for you, if it eases your insomnia or abates your cirrhosis or ensures that your third-grader can eat cookies and nut-butter cups at lunch just like all the other kids; or if the candy's good for the world, if it helps fund breast-cancer research or feeds homeless kids or hastens the salvation of a lost soul or two — then how bad a deal can it possibly be? To hell with Joy Bauer and her 10 percent allotment!

"Here's a dirty secret," says Almond. "We know we're eating candy. We want to be eating candy."

It's just that some people need more of a nudge than others.

Best Things to Do In St. Louis

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