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Candy Manufacturers Seek Share of the American Sweet Tooth - 2002-06-21

Americans spent about $9 billion on candy last year. That includes sweets ranging from expensive European chocolates to gum balls from vending machines. Each year, hundreds of candy manufacturers and distributors come to a Chicago trade show, hoping to win a share of America's sweet tooth.

It is called the All Candy Expo. More than 400 booths of chocolate, chewy candy, hard candy, gum. It is enough to make a reporter feel like, well, a kid in a candy store.

"We make strawberry, ranch lemon, pineapple, cherry, banana," says Emmanuel Dane of Spanish candy maker Intervan was among the overseas representatives hoping to sell her company's candy in U.S. stores. Fruit-flavored candy is among the most common offering at the Candy Expo, but look around long enough and you find some unusual sweets.

Sandra Jiminez of the Turkish company Erden Confectionery was displaying something called popping candy.

Jiminez: "Popping candy is a candy you put in your mouth and it explodes by itself."
Leland:"That sounds almost scary."
Jiminez: "No, but you have to try it."

National Confectioners Association spokeswoman Susan Fussell says sometimes it is not enough for candy to taste good it has to do something. "The biggest changes you see in the candy industry are in the novelty or interactive candy sections of the market. Those are candies that appeal to kids," she says. "You can play with them, write with them, they spin, talk, sing, make noise, pop in your mouth."

The Expo features 1,400 new candy products for this year. They include jalapeno-flavored fudge, chocolate-covered corn flakes, and mints with bible verses printed on the wrapper. They are called Testamints. And, in the category of, "looks too good to eat," the Light Vision Confectionery Company of Cincinnati, Ohio makes lollipops etched with various holograms.

Mike Wadke, a company spokesman, says "what we have done there is laser-etched tiny facets, like the facet on a diamond, directly into the candy. As the light strikes it, it plays back in the pattern in which we cut the little facets. We can create all kinds of illusions and designs in it."

There are new twists on old favorites, like fruit-flavored lollipops rolled in chili powder. Benito Murillo of Paletas Mara from Mexico says it is a popular treat in Latin America, and among Hispanic Americans. For Americans not quite ready for chili-flavored candy, he has other things to sell. "It depends on the person. Some people like it hot, we have it hot. Some people like only spicy, we have spicy. Some people like sweet, we have sweet," he says.

But the Confectioners Association's Susan Fussell says more Americans than ever are buying newer types of imported candy. Some American children are introduced to the new candies by their immigrant friends at school, while many adults just seem to want to try something different. "Because Americans are becoming more used to that kind of influence. They are eating at Mexican restaurants, they are trying Cuban, they are going to Brazilian restaurants, and they are being introduced to a lot of those flavors that are different for Americans," she says.

Candy-makers say this is a good time to be in their business. Despite an economic downturn in the United States this past year, consumption still increased a bit in 2001. The industry says that is because candy has always been both a comfort food and an "affordable luxury."