A top trend identified at the Sweets & Snacks Expo this year suggests consumers may be seeking treats with nutritional benefits. Quinoa, kale, chia seeds, chickpeas, seaweed and other ingredients perceived as healthy were featured in many new products on display at the show, held May 20-22 in Chicago.

A more subtle nod toward health and wellness was evident from the largest companies in the industry, with innovation focused on approaches like portion control. For many smaller companies, though, esoteric ingredients were fearlessly introduced.

“Chia was an ingredient that I really can’t remember seeing in new products before this year,” said Susan Whiteside, vice-president of communications for the National Confectioners Association, which hosts the annual trade show. “That caught my attention because I felt like it was a totally new ingredient for our category and also one that has a health halo surrounding it.”

Forty-five per cent of consumers seek snacks that offer benefits beyond basic nutrition, according to I.R.I. Worldwide, a market research company, and product developers are responding with such items as snack chips flecked with flax seed, popcorn cooked in coconut oil, and chocolate studded with quinoa.

Associated with heart health and nutrient density, ancient grains appeared in several new snack products at the show, including Inventure Foods’ Boulder Canyon Ancient Grains snack chips, which contain quinoa, millet, chia and amaranth; and Gourmet Basics’ Slim Chips popcorn chips, a popped snack that combines quinoa, flax, chia and sunflower seeds. In sweet applications, quinoa is featured in a new variety of BarkThins dark chocolate snacks from Ripple Brand Collective and EatKeenwa Krunch coconut cranberry cashew bites.

Protein-rich snacks were also prominent at the show, seen in a spate of jerky products, nut butters, pumpkin seeds and chickpea snacks. The Good Bean, Berkeley, Calif., marked its show debut, displaying roasted chickpeas in such flavors as smoky chili and lime, Thai coconut lemongrass, mesquite barbecue, and chocolate.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see how many natural and better-for-you products as well as higher-end, healthier confections and snacks were represented at the show, and I think it’s part of a broader trend where there’s kind of a quote-unquote ‘mainstreaming’ of natural, better-for-you, specialty food into the grocery store, where you would not have found those items five or six years ago,” said Sarah Wallace, co-founder of The Good Bean. “It’s a reflection of the consumer, and American consumers are across the board aspiring toward healthier lifestyles and wanting to make better choices.”

Ms. Wallace said The Good Bean has benefitted from a growing interest in plant-based proteins, which continue to gain traction across the snack aisle.

“Bean protein and pea protein are becoming huge ingredients because I think on some level there’s a need for protein and a need for fiber and people want better nutrition from their snacks, and I think rightly or wrongly, people have been moving away from soy somewhat,” she said. “And I think the next best thing after soy would be something like a chickpea or bean or lentil.”

Snacks with a twist

Several other companies at the show featured chips made of coconut, seaweed, plantains and kale, positioned as better-for-you alternatives to conventional crunchy snacks.

“A lot of these are all-natural, gluten-free, non-G.M.O., which is important to consumers,” Ms. Whiteside said. “It would be hard to make a non-G.M.O. corn chip.”

Organic, gluten-free and non-G.M.O. products remain niches in the multibillion dollar category but are growing, Ms. Whiteside said.

Though not new to this year’s show, super fruits and sea salt show continued growth in the category, and recent innovation offers a fresh take, Ms. Whiteside noted.

“What was interesting to me in sea salt products this year were the new combinations of ingredients that it’s being used with,” she said. “We’ve been seeing sea salt caramels for several years, but one (sea salt product) that came up this year was made with agave, and that was a differentiating factor for me. Part of it is that consumer acceptance of salt in chocolate has become greater over the years, and now we can experiment with it a little more.”

Such was the case with super fruits, including pomegranate, cranberry and acai. Candy makers are delivering the on-trend ingredients in creative ways, Ms. Whiteside said.

“One of the great things about candy and snacks generally is that they are great delivery vehicles for a lot of different things,” she said. “It’s a very flexible category, so you are able to do that and make it a good-tasting and attractive and reasonably priced product, and that has given manufacturers a lot of freedom to look for those kind of innovations when they’re coming up with their next great idea.”

Another noteworthy health trend at the show was growth in portion packs and scaled-down sweets. The Hershey Co., Mars, Inc. and other large players in the category have extended their offerings of bite-size versions of popular products. New this year were Peeps Minis from Just Born Quality Confections, Ghiradelli Minis, and Airheads Bites from Perfetti Van Melle Inc. The winner of the Best in Show innovation award was Hershey’s York Minis bite-size peppermint patties, an extension of the company’s popular platform of bite-size, unwrapped candies.

“We saw a huge push on that in last year’s show, but we certainly saw it continuing this year,” Ms. Whiteside said. “When people are asked about the kinds of decisions they are going to make to improve their health, they aren’t likely to say they are going to cut candy out completely. They are likely to say they are going to enjoy the things they like in smaller quantities, and these types of products can really help consumers do that.”

Despite the demand for better-for-you confections, consumers still look to the category foremost for indulgence.

“When consumers think of the candy category in particular, they are thinking of a treat,” Ms. Whiteside said. “While they are unlikely to choose a product just because it has one of those interesting things going on, if that interesting thing appeals to them and it still tastes like that treat they’re expecting, they are very interested.”