Is candy the new superfood? A day at the sweets fair

There was sugar galore at the International Sweets Fair in Cologne, but also a surprising number of healthy snacks, from veggie sticks to protein bars. We taste-tested both kinds of treats!

Imagine going to the world's largest candy fair, with more than 1,000 exhibitors from 75 countries, and being able to try anything you want. What do you picture yourself eating? Sumptuous chocolates, crunchy cookies and gummy candies so sweet you can practically feel the next dentist visit coming, right? That is one way you could eat your way through theISM (International Sweets Fair) in Cologne.

But you could also go the other way and stick to what I'd like to call the low-and-free fraction: Low sugar! Gluten-free! Lactose-free! Palm-oil-free! Checking out the big trends at the ISM 2019, you get the impression that really, there is nothing better for your body than snacking.

Baked veggies instead of chips

Across the aisle from PaPicante's pea protein bars (they taste better than they sound!), visitors can stop by the "Guzman's Guzinos" booth to try something you might not expect at a candy fair: vegetables. The Guzinos are veggie sticks that have been baked, not fried, don't contain gluten and are 100 percent vegan.

Host city Cologne was represented with a large chocolate version of its famous cathedral

"We grow all our vegetables ourselves — they ripen under the Andalusian sun," Uwe Böhrnsen proudly said. "The veggie sticks are a healthy, fun snack for kids and go great with a glass of wine for adults."

I'm not a huge fan of the Guzinos, but I suppose they could be a viable alternative if you're trying to wean yourself off potato chips, which come with loads more fat and salt. Plus several colleagues said that the sticks were actually delicious — there was even a "I am going to look for them at the grocery store!" So maybe my taste buds just aren't refined enough.

Health bars no carrot replacement

One big trend at the ISM were protein bars that were healthy (of course) and yummy (or so their makers say) at the same time. In some of the giant exhibitor halls, it felt like every second booth had a table where someone was cutting up protein bars into bite-sized samples.

"Hej" crispy protein bars come in chocolate brownie and lemon cheesecake flavors and don't look that different from a Snickers. But they contain only 1.8 grams of sugar per bar, no artificial flavoring and no palm oil. If we're being so health-conscious, wouldn't it make more sense for me to snack on a carrot instead? Sure, Hej's Kathrin Appelhoff's says, but the bars aren't targeted at people who already live a veggie-full lifestyle.

Audios and videos on the topic

"Our bars are for someone who's used to chocolate and wants a healthy alternative, not for folks going to the gym six times a week," Appelhoff explained with a laugh. 

Read more: Poison candy: Are chocolates, sweets and sugary snacks ever healthy?

"Hej" bars: not quite as sweet as Snickers, but healthier!

Someone is speaking my language! Healthy candy might sound like an oxymoron at first, but it's an attempt to appeal to people like me, who love their sweets fix but also know too much sugar is bad for them. Walking that fine line is becoming ever more important in a world full of educated consumers who are hyper-aware of the dangers of sugar.

Target group: women

The whole conceit only works, of course, if the taste is right. The chocolate brownie "Hej" bar I tried was pretty good, and the feeling of eating something "good" added another 10 percent of deliciousness. The Bulgarian "Nics" bars, made with all natural ingredients and sweetened with honey, "looks like something I used to feed my budgie," one colleague said, but "tastes nice and fruity," another pointed out. 

Read more: Sweet silence: An industry shtum on artificial sugars unless they’re called Stevia

Siberryia: Healthy berry treats, though taste-wise, there's room for improvement

The little berry balls from Russian manufacturer "Siberrya" contain no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives either, but let me just say that I would eat 10 raw carrots before ever having another of their dried blueberry treats again.

The same goes for "Cheatless" protein bars. The company's representative excitedly told me that I was right in their target group: Women, who according to him were underrepresented in the protein bar market. That's why the packaging comes in a, supposedly, feminine color palette including pastel pink, you see.

Women, the rep continued to tell me, wanted a sweet reward after working out at the gym, and that's what these bars were for. I did not find them particularly rewarding in taste and neither did my colleague, though he wasn't part of the target group, of course. 

Sweet treats still represented, too

A couple of traditional candy makers have not jumped on the health trend and are sticking to regular sugar. "Sweets are non-essential food items for you to enjoy in small amounts," Torsten Köpke from German Marzipan manufacturer Niederegger said. "The world doesn't need us, but we make it a nicer place."

Belgian chocolate maker Guylian has replaced the palm oil in their chocolates with cocoa butter or sunflower oil, and reduced the sugar in most of their products. But all in all, their pralines still look and taste exactly like what they are: luxury sweet treats. And one product completely escaped any health-directed changes.

"We didn't reduce the sugar in our chocolate sea shells, because they're our most iconic product and what made us famous," Guylian sales manager Nico Beckmann said.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'll appreciate this the next time I enjoy one of those sweet, sweet sea shell pralines.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar makes you fat!

Sugar is converted to fat in the body about two to five times more quickly than starches. In other words, when we consume sugar, we’re feeding our fat cells. The fructose in sugar is also metabolized by the liver, which can contribute to fatty liver disease. That can promote insulin resistance and lead to Type 2 diabetes – with a lifelong impact on your health.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar affects your mood!

In small amounts, sugar promotes the release of serotonin, a hormone that boosts mood. But too much sugar can promote depression and anxiety. Sudden shifts in blood sugar levels can also lead to irritability, anxiety and mood swings.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar contributes to aging!

We already know that sugar has a variety of health effects, but it also affects the skin. That’s in part due to glycation, the process whereby sugar molecules bind to collagen fibers. As a result, the collagen fibers lose their natural elasticity. Excess sugar also damages microcirculation, which slows cell turnover. That can promote the development of wrinkles, make you look older than your age.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar is harmful to your gut!

The microflora of your gut promote digestion and protect your digestive system from harmful bacteria. Consuming too much sugar gets your gut microflora out of whack. Fungi and parasites love sugar. An excess of the Candida albicans yeast can lead to a host of annoying health symptoms. And sugar also contributes to constipation, diarrhea and gas.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar can be addictive!

In overweight people, the brain responds to sugar by releasing dopamine, in much the same way that it responds to alcohol or other addictive substances. Test it yourself: avoid all sugary foods and beverages for ten days. If you start to get headachy and irritable after a day or two, and start craving sugar, then you could be suffering from sugar withdrawal.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar makes you aggressive!

People who consume excess sugar are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior. Children with ADHD are also affected by sugar. For these children, too much sugar affects concentration and promotes hyperactivity. That’s why it’s a good idea for children to avoid eating sugar during school hours.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar weakens the immune system!

Excessive sugar consumption makes it harder for the immune system to ward off disease. After consuming sugar, the immune system’s ability to kill germs is reduced by up to 40 percent. Sugar also saps the body’s store of vitamin C, which white blood cells need to fight off viruses and bacteria. Sugar also promotes the inflammatory response, and even minor inflammation can trigger numerous diseases.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar promotes Alzheimer’s disease!

Studies have shown that excess sugar consumption increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A 2013 study showed that insulin resistance and high blood sugar values – both of which are common in diabetes – are associated with a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar increases cancer risk!

Cancer cells need sugar to proliferate. An international research team headed by Lewis Cantley of Harvard Medical School is researching how sugar might contribute to the growth of malignant cells. He believes that refined sugar may be what causes cancer cells to develop into tumors. He’s still testing that hypothesis but recommends that even slender people consume as little sugar as possible.

Bitter truth about sugar

Sugar makes you stupid!

Excess sugar consumption may have a negative impact on memory. According to a study carried out by Berlin’s Charité University Hospital, people with high blood sugar levels have a smaller hippocampus – the part of the brain that’s key to long term memory. In the study, people with high blood sugar also performed more poorly on tests of memory than those with low blood sugar levels.