June 13/Deerfield, Ill/Prepared Foods -- The Snacks and Sweets Expo held late in May in Chicago allowed a look at some of the latest confections and snacks hitting the marketplace, as well as new creativity in those segments.

Some of those innovations, however, seem to look back to the past. New England Confectionery Co., for instance, is embracing the history of its Necco Wafers by moving away from the all-natural trend. The company is returning the confections to their original, artificially colored roots after a couple of years of an all-natural range of hues. A Necco spokesperson likened it to the New Coke/Coke Classic event of decades ago but, more importantly, was quick to note that the move was the result of consumer demand. Whether it is the first salvo in a pushback against natural as a trend remains to be seen. For that matter, it also may be the first indication of consumer dissatisfaction with the fairly unregulated “natural” claim. Regardless, the packaging does not boldly proclaim anything artificial, so it may be something of a soft relaunch. Instead of vegetable-derived colorings, the manufacturer opts for yellows 5 and 6, reds 3 and 40, and blue 1.

As one established brand eschews natural, however, another is set to embrace it. The Topps Co.’s Bazooka Candy Brands, fresh off its acquisition of Sharkies Inc., makers of organic and natural fruit chews, is now ensconced in the natural confections segment, with Sharkies Organic Fruit Chews geared toward young people and a range of Adult Organic Energy Sport Chews.

While Hershey may be a longstanding company, it continues to strive to push the envelope of innovation, and one of its bigger launches of the year saw the company take its namesake brand into stratospheric new territory. Hershey’s Air Delight is one of the company’s first aerated chocolates and, according to spokespeople, offers a light and airy texture. Not only will it be available in a 1.44oz. bar form, it will also join the Kisses range.

In another launch borne of nostalgia, Bosco would seem to be back. Sort of. Praim LLC, the owner of the Bosco brand, has included the brand name on a bar of milk chocolate. This is in spite of the fact that the candy bar, in fact, contains no Bosco whatsoever.

For those old enough to remember that brand--anyone over 21, in fact--2 Chicks with Chocolate added the Wine Collection of confections. Spicy Merlot was a bonbon with a 38% milk chocolate shell filled with milk chocolate ganache and infused with Merlot, cinnamon, orange and a touch of black peppercorn. Cabernet Caramel had a 64% dark chocolate shell wrapped around a touch of wine, caramel and a hint of salt. Tempranillo Ganache featured a Spanish grape flavor in a smooth ganache with an undernote of raspberry, while Meritage Caramel blended Syrah, Merlot and Zinfandel.

Several gluten-free options were also on-hand at the Sweets and Snacks Expo. Simply 7 Snacks’ Hummus Chips and Lentil Chips were not only free of gluten, but also of trans fat, cholesterol, additives, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors. Well known for its gluten-free gums, Glee Gum expanded its range this year with a sugar-free variety, sweetening two flavors (Lemon-Lime and Refresh-Mint) with 100% xylitol, which company representatives were quick to note is a sugar alcohol made from American birch bark, found naturally in the fibers of fruits and vegetables.

As the Candy Expo has evolved to become the Sweets and Snacks Expo, a number of its exhibitors have also merged the notion of confections with options more traditionally regarded as snacks. Snyder’s-Lance Inc. introduced York Peppermint Pretzel Sandwich Dips, featuring peppermint cream sandwiched between two bite-sized pretzels and dipped into dark chocolate.

As Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association (NCA), noted in his opening remarks, “Trends in confectionery and snacks for 2011 reflect the larger patterns seen across the food industry--Americans are more interested in what they are eating, and are looking for new flavors to satisfy increasingly complex palates. Consumers look for value, exciting flavors and nutrition, when seeking new sweets and snacks.”

Despite a lagging economy, snacks enjoyed significant gains in 2010. According to the NCA, the confectionery industry posted a 3.6% gain in 2010, ahead of overall growth of food sales in leading channels. Salty snacks experienced steady growth, with a 2% gain over previous-year sales. SymphonyIRI and NCA data indicate:

• Gummy and chewy candy sales were up nearly 5%.

• Licorice products continued to grow, up by nearly 3%.

• Seasonal candy sales increased in 2010; with even more growth expected for 2011.

• Non-chocolate Easter candy grew 21%.

• Chocolate products for Easter, Halloween and Christmas grew 5%.

From the June 13 Prepared Foods E-dition