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[Photographs: Liz Gutman]

The Sweets & Snacks Expo happens every year in Chicago, and I've watched TV shows on it, read about it, and dreamed of attending for years. Finally, this year was it. Jen and I headed to the Windy City to check out this year's chocolate trends (you can find other highlights from the show here). Of course there are loads, but what were the ones that kept popping up?

1. Chocolate/Nut Spreads

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Nutella's got some serious competition on its hands. Honestly, it makes sense when I think about it, but it would never have occurred to me out of the blue. However, someone (well, someones) noticed the vacuum in the chocolate-nut spread section and rushed in to fill it. Of course it's nothing blow-your-socks-off revelatory—Peanut Butter & Co. has been doing their chocolate PB for a while, and Justin's makes several different kinds—but these look to be going straight after the more shelf-stable, smooth-processed Nutella-like flavors and textures.

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My favorite straight-up chocolate/hazelnut was from Czech manufacturer Carla; Jen and I agreed it was the smoothest and creamiest we tried, with a really nice balance of chocolate and nutty flavors. Close behind, though, was the ChocoDream fair trade, eco-friendly version—and they make a speculoo spread that is out-of-control good, too.

2. 'Healthy' Chocolate

Also not that new, but the variety here (particularly from the "big boys"—Hershey's, etc.) was what astounded me. This niche of the market seems to be heading away from straight dark chocolate trumpeting high cocoa percentages and towards adding inclusions or extracts instead (I may scream if I see another Goji berry), or using it as a coating for "healthy" items like soy nuts. I still refuse to think of chocolate as a health food—what's wrong with having something just for a treat?—but it looks as though I'm in the minority. Well, at least as far as the marketing department is concerned.

3. Covering Already-Popular Stuff in Chocolate

Oreos, jelly beans, soy nuts—everything is better dunked in chocolate, right? Uhh, sure. Just ask Oreo, Jelly Belly, Planters, and numerous others who are dunking their already established treats in chocolate. Chocolate covered Oreos aren't new, but I did try one that was only half a cookie (with the filling, natch) coated in chocolate. Seemed a little curious to me; I don't get why the other half of the cookie wasn't welcome. The chocolate-covered jelly beans were surprisingly tasty, though, if you could get past the says-it's-cherry-but-really-just-kinda-tastes-Red flavor (I could).

4. Retro Packaging/Old Favorites

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The old-school look was in heavy rotation around chocolatey treats. Mallo-Cups, Turkish Taffy, coconut slices; it looked like brands that have been around for a while are capitalizing on their nostalgia factors to get people's attention. I have to admit, it worked for me—I love the bright, straightforward, often-blocky designs and fonts on the packaging, and the unassuming displays. It might just be an aesthetic thing, but I love that the retro look is coming back. Now if only they could all go back to the retro ingredients...

5. Aerated Chocolate

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Okay, so only one company was rolling this out aggressively (Hershey's), but I'm honestly surprised aerated chocolate bars haven't caught on sooner. I happen to love Aero bars, and from a business point of view, it's a really innovative way to charge more money for less product (aside from doing all the older tricks like repackaging, rebranding, etc). I'm not the biggest Hershey's fan, so I'd like to see a better chocolate doing this; I think if it did it could really catch on. Then again, CandyBlog favorably reviewed Bubble Chocolate when it first showed up in the US in 2006, and not much happened there...guess we'll have to see how this works out for Hershey's.

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