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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.