The National Confectioners Association has officially unwrapped the latest candy and snack industry trends of 2016 as the Sweets & Snacks Expo kicks off in Chicago from May 24 through May 26 at McCormick Place. Covering four acres of chocolate, candy, cookies and savory snacks, several trends emerged that are setting the course for the future of the candy industry. From bites, barks and thins to unconventional ingredients, the newest products continue to evolve in both the areas of taste and packaging.

"This year's Sweets & Snacks Expo is host to more than 750 exhibitors all sharing the most innovative offerings from their respective companies," said NCA President & CEO John H. Downs, Jr. "With the use of unique ingredients and flavor combinations, the tastes of 2016 are bigger, bolder and more groundbreaking than ever before. The Expo is a showcase of the ways in which our industry is working hard to provide consumers with choices, information and the support they need to make decisions that are right for them."

The Sweets & Snacks Expo attendees represent 90% of the buying power in the candy category and 75% of the buying power in the snack category in the U.S. The addition of a new hall led to a 22% increase in exhibit space for 2016 allowing more than 200 new companies to participate this year. Whether representing large multi-national brands or small regional favorites, the exhibitors at the Expo make a wide variety of options – available in packages ranging from fun size to share size – that can bring a smile to any occasion.

At this year's Sweets & Snacks Expo, the following trends emerged:

Bites, Barks and Thins

Good things do come in small packages – especially when it comes to treats. Confectioners and snack makers will be consistently creating big tastes in small products this year, often under labels like "thins" and "barks." These products don't skimp on ingredients or quality, but focus on delivering a delicious product that's easy to snack on while on-the-go or to simply enjoy in moderation.

Fantastic Fruits and Noteworthy Nuts

With chocolate and fruit or chocolate and nut combinations performing increasingly well over the last three years (increasing 116% and 63%, respectively), a multitude of innovative fruit and nut products are being launched in 2016. New mouthwatering fruit and flavor pairings will emerge introducing many of us for the first time to combinations like mango and chocolate, blueberry and acai or fig with vanilla. Similarly, the industry is going nuts for new nut innovations. Expect to see the inclusion of more hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews and salted almonds in candies and snacks in 2016. Coconut, a botanically curious fruit/nut hybrid, will also be paired with flavors like caramel, peanut butter and chocolate.

Far-Out Flavor

Today's flavor profiles are bigger and bolder than ever before with unique flavor combinations taking the confectionery and snack industry by storm. This category includes many kitchen-inspired flavors including pumpkin, fiery spices and robust international flair. Saigon cinnamon, Sriracha and chimichurri are a few flavors that are expected to pack a punch at the Expo and beyond. Other notable ingredients within this category include coffee, espresso and cappuccino flavors, which have increased 30% over the last three years.

Innovative Ingredients

Coconut palm sugar, coconut milk, chia and pumpkin seeds highlight only a handful of the variety of noteworthy ingredients in this year's new product launches. These creative ingredients are far from ordinary and guaranteed to take taste buds to new levels.

Taste of Luxury

Over the past three years premium chocolate sales increased 56%, so it's no wonder that confection- and snack-makers have their eyes on luxury and gourmet markets this year. Even candies known for their mass appeal are creating premium products. Candy companies incorporated high quality ingredients and flavors like champagne, muscadine grape and Himalayan sea salt, to name a few.

The National Confectioners Association also released the following information about the confectionery industry's 2015 performance at the Sweets & Snacks Expo: The overall confectionery category increased 3.2% in 2015.

Chocolate grew 3.1% with increased interest in premium chocolate, dark chocolate, fruits and nuts.

Non-chocolate confection sales increased 3.7% with solid performances from fruity candies, gummies, sour candies and breath fresheners.

Gum sales rose 1% with sugarless gum leading the way.

Top outlets for candy sales in 2015 included grocery stores, super centers and drug stores, however consumers also shopped online for confections. In 2015, 30% of people bought candy online (up from 24% in 2014 and 21% in 2013).