“Congratulations! You have been selected as one of the few media who are invited to receive early access to not only the newest candy and snack items not yet to market, but also to observe the Expo’s Innovation Awards evaluation panel live in action,” the email read.

Cool beans (as in jelly beans, mind you), I thought. It’s not often one gets to see the judging of new product innovations up close and personal. Plus, I’ve always wondered how my assessments of new product introductions would stack up with others.

Given that the National Confectioners Association (NCA)’s Innovation Awards were to be announced the next day at 11:30 on the first day of the Sweets & Snacks Expo, which was held May 23-25 at McCormick Place in Chicago, I was thrilled to get a sneak preview.

So after dropping off my suitcase at the Union League Club, home to our Candy Industry Kettle Awards reception and dinner, I drove over to McCormick Place, anxious to mingle with the judges. Upon getting my press credentials and handing over my signed agreement not to reveal the winners before 11:30 the next day, I made my way over to Room 471 where all the action was taking place.

But before we could enter the Sanctus Sanctorum, we were reminded of the guidelines that the media promised to adhere to: No photography; no talking to judges until after 5 p.m., which was the voting deadline for judges; and nothing published until after 11:30 on Tuesday. Oh yes, refreshments would be served at 5.

There were nine categories — chocolate, non-chocolate, sweet snacks, salty snacks, savory snacks, novelty/licensed, seasonal, gums and mints and gourmet — and 22 judges. In addition, this year the NCA created its first Small Business Innovator Award, which recognized startup entrepreneurs with net sales under $500,000. Product submissions for all categories were rated on four weighted criteria: taste, packaging, innovation and go-to-market feasibility.

And then they let us go to it. First, let me say that room 471 is rather large. At first glance, sampling all these confections and snacks could literally turn your stomach. Steady now, I told myself, this is part of the job.  

But mind you, these judges are used to tasting candy. Moreover, while judges were allowed to sample every item, they were assigned specific categories, the number ranging from two to five. And then there’s the cachet of having professional snack and candy buyers judging these items.

It makes the NCA’s Expo Innovation awards the “most credible awards” since you have “retailers and wholesalers judging the product,” Phil Lempert, founder and editor of SupermarketGuru.com and long-time emcee of the event, told everyone in the room. And in this instance, media, although our assessments were strictly personal.

Now I’ve occasionally had the honor of judging confections during the course of my career. I realize that for some people this represents the — dare I say this dated phrase — the cat’s meow, but trust me, not so.

It’s akin to tasting wines, I mean multiple wines. Unless you actually spit the stuff out, by the time you’re quaffed your fifth glass, you, your taste buds or both are impaired. In this instance, you can be “choc’ed out” after dozens and dozens of chocolate samples.

Yeah, you can drink water to “cleanse the palate,” but that only works for a while. With that in mind, I was pretty selective in what to sample. My choices ranged from the exotic to ultra-premium, from bite-sized to organic, from quirky to clever. And while I did check out all nine categories, I’ll admit, most of my time was spent sampling chocolate, so don’t hold it against me.

Some quick observations: Coconut’s popular; so is bite-sized; need I say organic and all-natural; textural fusion; exotic inclusions; super fruits and probiotics. As I finished my rounds and sat down to collect my thoughts, Lempert announced the judges had only five minutes to finish up.

You knew the time was drawing near when the wait staff started popping the champagne corks. Nothing like cleansing one’s palate with a bit of bubbly, I thought to myself. And then I corralled some judges to get their thoughts on what they had just gone through.

Carla Boyington from Core-Mark International, directory of category management, agreed to answer a few quick questions.

This was her second stab at judging, so this wasn’t her first innovation roundup. And she wasn’t put off by the number of items she was asked to sample from five categories; it’s part of the territory, she said.

Her takeaway: Sweet with heat is trending again, Boyington added before excusing herself. The debut of Mars’ Sweet Heat Skittles and Starbursts at the show affirmed her observation.

It was then that I spotted Sarah Reck, Walgreen’s senior category manager for everyday candy, taking a breather, probably relieved that the judging was over. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I asked Reck what her reaction was to the products surveyed. Acknowledging that there was plenty of creativity within the confectionery industry, she came away impressed with the gluten-free Brownie Brittles, Edward Marc Medallions and Setton Farms Pistachio Chewy Bites. Oh yes, then there were those dark chocolate banana slices from Truth in Snacks.

Both Reck and I agreed that bananas have been neglected as a fruit that welcomes a chocolate bath. It was at that moment that her colleague Bryan Rinker, category manager from Walgreens, swung by.

As he explained, this was his fourth time judging at the innovation awards, so he was almost a veteran. For him JC’s Pie Bites stood out and so did Vosges Haut-Chocolat’s Wild Ophelia Cold Brew Bites. That’s quite a diverse span, from really sweet to really intense, I thought to myself. But then, that’s why he’s the professional.

And on my end, I also had a few favorites. Products that I tried and stood out in my mind were: Edward Marc Medallions, Anastasia’s Coconut Cashew Crunch, Green & Black’s Dark Chocolate Salted Caramel, Vivra Chocolates English Garden Bar; Tru Chocolate’s Flame Raisins, Russell Stover’s Toffee Squares, Truth in Snacks Dark Chocolate Strawberry (also comes in banana), CeMoi’s 90% dark chocolate bar, La Montagne Coconut Almonds, Chocolate Always Fruit & Nut Delicacy, Blue Planet Superfood Chocolate Squares Probiotic and Baobab Superfood Bites, and Sahale Cranberry almond with Black Pepper & Orange Zest Bar.

I know, heavy on chocolate. Heavy on creativity as well. Final thoughts: Looks like there’s plenty of innovation going on, particularly from small and mid-sized manufacturers. In some cases, it comes accidentally.

For example, take Edward Marc Medallions, which proved to be one of my personal favorites. After our media preview, I stopped by Edward Marc Brands’ booth to visit with Christian Edwards, the company’s ceo. As he related, the Medallions emerged from an accident.

“Somebody had forgotten to load the pretzel feeder and out came these beautiful caramel discs,” he explained. Obviously, the crew needed to tweak the concept — it took about a year — but it did spark an idea. In my eyes, Edwards has a winner. But then, who am I to pass judgment?

For a complete list of the Innovation Awards winners, go to http://www.candyindustry.com/articles/87740-nca-announces-2017-most-innovative-new-product-award-winners.