Chicago was transformed into Candyland this week as hundreds of candy and snack companies from around the world showcased more than 2,000 confectionery creations and savory snacks.

The All Candy Expo in Chicago, Illinois, has been a sweet tradition since 1998.

"It's the largest candy and snack trade show in the Americas," says Susan Fussell Whiteside, spokeswoman for the National Confectionery Association, which sponsors the annual event.

"All Candy Expo is a venue for confectionery manufacturers to exhibit the greatest, latest, coolest new products they have to offer," she explains. "And the attendees represent retail and wholesale customers who purchase the candy. This year, we have 450 exhibiters and about 105 new exhibiters. Certainly a good percentage of those are coming from international locations. We have lots of exhibiters from Asia and South and Central America. We also have attendees who are coming really from virtually everywhere across the world."

Sweet innovations

Every year, manufacturers create and display hundreds of new products. This year, Whiteside says, is no exception.

"The biggest trend every year is really brand extensions, twists on traditional candies that we've come to know and love," she says. "This year we'll see things like M&Ms Coconut hit the market. We'll also see Snickers, which has fudge in it. It's the Snickers Fudge Bar. We're going to see dark chocolate Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, and also from Nestle's, the Baby Ruth Crisp Bar, which is a wafer coated in chocolate bar with Baby Ruth filling."

Also, she says, the industry is showcasing healthier products.

"We'll see things like Jelly Belly launching a new super fruits mix, which includes acai berries, pomegranate and cherry, which is very high in vitamin C," she says. "There are definitely products in the market that have reduced sugar or that are sugar-free. There are also lots of products that offer added benefits. So, for a kid, it tastes like a regular, delicious gummy bear, but it has added vitamin C. Also lots of products [are coming this year] that are made of real fruits and made with natural ingredients, and they are 25 percent real fruit juice."

Candy industry doing well despite downturn

The NCA has represented the U.S. candy, chocolate and chewing gum industry since 1884. Whiteside says, historically, tough economic times don't seem to negatively affect candy and snack sales.

"In fact, we very rarely see huge spikes or huge declines in the candy industry," she says. "We tend to move along at a pretty slow and steady growth pace, which is great in a difficult economy. The most recent sale period, which ended April 19, 2009, the candy industry was up 3.7 percent from the previous 52 weeks."

She points to a number of reasons why the industry is doing well in spite of the current economic downturn.

"One of them is certainly that candy is an affordable luxury," she says. "While it might not be something that people need, it's not very expensive. So when people think, 'I can't buy a new car this year. I can't go on an expensive vacation, but I can still buy myself little bits of happiness,' the candy industry is there to serve that need."

Another reason, she says, is that certain candies have become an integral part of the American way of life, especially in how we celebrate a number of occasions and holidays.

"It's hard to imagine what trick-or-treating [America's celebration of Halloween] would be like without candy or what it would be like celebrating Easter without an Easter basket or Valentine's Day without a heart-shaped box of chocolate or Christmas without candy canes on the Christmas tree," she says. "So most consumers will still keep candy on their shopping list when it comes to those important holidays."

Whiteside says the All Candy Expo has always been a delicious experience for visitors. Now people everywhere can be part of this sweet event - without the calories - by visiting the event's web site,