When the Sweets & Snacks Expo rolls into McCormick Place every spring, it feels like Halloween in May. Imagine four acres of showrooms brimming with different types of chips, cookies, candy, popcorn, meat snacks and more — all available for sampling for those lucky enough to attend.
This year, we explored the expo with a mission: find the latest trends in healthy snacks. Fortunately, there was no shortage of veggie crisps, bean chips, legume sticks, nuts, seeds, pickles and other crispy, crunchy, wholesome nibbles. Here are the trends we spotted (and tasted). Look for them on a shelf near you.
Meat snack attack
Meat showed up in a big way on the show floor, from traditional beef jerky to artisanal jerky (elk, wild boar, buffalo, all from Pearson Ranch) and snappy smoked sticks. The protein-packed snacks come in a variety of flavors like taco, cheesesteak and buffalo (Slim Jim); sweet maple bacon (Western’s Smokehouse); and hickory peach BBQ, chorizo and lime, hatch green chile (Duke’s).
Health appeal: High in protein and low in fat for lasting energy.
Pickles to ponder
In addition to the classic jarred product, pickles were out in force. Van Holten’s was handing out Pickle-Ice freeze pops, aka pickle popsicles (the first three ingredients: water, vinegar, salt). And then there were pickle-flavored sunflower seeds, pickle-flavored potato chips and pickle-flavored popcorn.
Health appeal: Low-calorie, with a satisfying and salty crunch.
Nuts and seeds with a kick
Nuts and seeds have been growing in popularity, and this year they had an enormous presence and were frequently dusted in seasoning and spice. To list a few of the best: pumpkin seeds with cinnamon and sugar (SuperSeedz); sweet chili pistachios (Wonderful Pistachios); jalapeño, chili-limon, chipotle BBQ, garlic onion pistachios (Setton Farms); and spicy sweet chili and dill pickle sunflower seeds (Spitz).
Health appeal: Packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and healthy fats. Nuts and seeds are an energizing alternative to chips and other salty snacks.
Granola is nothing new, but this year it’s coming in different sizes and it’s even caffeinated. Most notable: the granola bites from Nourish — made by Today Show nutritionist Joy Bauer — which are as satisfying as a cookie but loaded with whole grains, seeds and fruit. And for an afternoon pick-me-up, Awake Energy Granola Bars have about the same amount of caffeine as a half-cup of coffee.
Health appeal: Granola is filled with whole grains your body needs and is a great alternative to more indulgent sweet snacks.
Popcorn and other corn products are having a moment. There was mini popcorn with tiny kernels (The Little Kernel); skinless popcorn without husks (New Pop); roasted corn snacks (MisterCorn); and flavored popcorn everywhere you looked — we spotted Sriracha (POP! Gourmet Foods), truffle salt, honey BBQ, salt & vinegar (Live Love Pop) and cheddar bacon ranch (Gary Poppins).
Health appeal: Corn is a whole grain that’s rich in antioxidants. In its salty, popped form it’s often lower in calories and fat than typical salty snacks such as chips.
Chips and crisps with a twist
Gone are the days that you could assume chips were made from potatoes and corn. At this expo, there were crisps made from beans (Our Little Rebellion), puffs made from chickpeas (Hippeas), sticks made from tomatoes, spinach, beets, broccoli and carrots (Veggie Stix by Good Health), baked snacks made from peas (Peas Please by Peeled) and sticks made from quinoa (Hi I’m Skinny Quinoa Sticks).
Health appeal: Legumes mean fiber and protein in your chips; veggie chips score on vitamins; some bean-based snacks are baked, not fried, and have a good dose of protein and veggies in each serving; and quinoa sticks are whole-grain heavy and have less fat than potato chips.
Judging from the Sweets & Snacks Expo, it’s not hard to find a healthy snack — you just have to know where to look.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.