Inside the World of Snaxpo

Inside the secret, salty world of SNAXPO, the snack-food industry trade show where dreams (and squid-flavored chips) become heart-clogging reality!

Inside the secret, salty world of SNAXPO, the snack-food industry trade show where dreams (and squid-flavored chips) become heart-clogging reality!

You’re watching TV and shoveling crispy fried stuff into your mouth. “I should be in the snack biz,” you say through a mouthful of bright-colored corn-based mulch. “Buy some corn. Add some salt. Easy money.” 

Well, the people at the 74th annual Snaxpo (a Comic-Con for mun­chies) might argue with you about that. They represent a vast solar system of snack-centric planets that manufacture stuff no one can stop eating. They are focused like lasers on the millions of tiny details they hope will make you snack more in 2012 than you did in 2011.

For example, they know that crackers should have “hardness, fracturability, denseness, duration of sound, dissolvability, and cohesiveness.” To guarantee this, National Starch Food Innovation has actually studied cracks per bite.

Finding out that these things have been measured by experts is, according to my boyfriend, “a bit like learning that porn is made by scientists and overseen by the AMA.” On the other hand, maybe it’s all this analysis that makes them irresistible.

I first attended Snaxpo in the early ’80s. The theme was “That’s Snackertainment,” so I half expected this year’s theme to be “Snackapocalypse.” Turned out there was no official theme this year, just a covert bummer one: health and wellness.

“Healthier snacks are outpacing indulgent snacks,” cautions the fortyish female speaker at the

State of the Industry breakfast seminar, held in a hotel ballroom for hundreds of mostly middle-aged white male snack professionals. “Seventy-one percent of consum­ers are trying to eat healthier.” This explains the omnipresence of the word natural on all the packaging.

A lot of energy goes into keeping your mouth full of salt and crunch. Let’s say you have an idea for a snack. You’ve always loved fried calamari. How about Squidzees? You’d have a squid dressed like a rap star on the package: Kid Squid! Can’t miss. Now what?

Well, at Snaxpo you meet reps from flavor companies that employ food scientists who cook not at stoves but at bench tops in labs stocked with gums, starches, polydextrose, flavors, meat pastes, fruit purees, dried herbs, and caramel colors that allow them to construct a flavor system to enhance the mouthfeel of your snack. Working with chemical flavor duplicates, they make products that last up to 26 weeks on supermarket shelves.

How should Squidzees taste? Well, trends say spicy. “You have to keep up with the constant changes in flavor fads,” says chef Matt Freistadt, a onetime Four Seasons sous chef turned research and development chef at Wixon, a spice, seasoning, and food service company. “The hot flavors now come from Latin America, Southeast Asia, Russia. Chipotle was popular five years ago, but the trend leader now is the hot pepper guajillo. You have to decide up front what story you want your snack to tell.”

His prophecy is visible everywhere at Snaxpo. Wixon is telling the snack story of international variations on barbecue using flavors inspired by Argentine asado, Korean kalbi, South African braai, and Russian shashlik grilling techniques. Mane Flavors is showing hot, tangy tamarindo-flavored chips based on Mexican pulparindo candy. Continental Ingredients is showing spicy chips seasoned with yuzo, a fruit from Japan. “In Asian markets they like to add hot chilies to citrus,” spokesman Stephane Carret explains before offering me stuffed pepper chips. They’re good! “People are more willing to try new flavors in beverages and snacks than in any other category of food,” says chef Matt.

So maybe Squidzees aren’t too far out in left field after all.

One thing’s for sure: They need an unsquidzee color. “Color sells because it’s associated with flavor,” says a guy from Colorcon, a coating system company, of its neon yellow cheese curls. “These are nearly identical to FD&C Yellow 5,” he says, “but are colored with turmeric,” which earns you a “no artificial colors” on your label. The downside? Turmeric is food, meaning it will rot faster.

Now, should Squidzees be baked, fried, sheeted, extruded, or pellets? Doritos, for example, are cut from sheets. But a thirtyish guy in a short-sleeved shirt beside an enormous cyclorama that says a world of pellets recommends—surprise!—pellets.

“Pellets provide the widest variety of shapes and textures,” he says, offering me a potato-based chocolate-colored, heart-shaped pellet designed for Valentine’s Day. Nothing says “I love you” like a potato-based pellet.

A cornmeal salesman in the next aisle makes the case for extruded snacks. “As I told you,” he repeats testily, “we make a baked extruded snack that is gelatinized in an extruder and made of cornmeal. I don’t know what they make the pellets out of.”

Most snacks come out of extrusion equipment, machinery so enormous it resembles a nuclear power plant. The BMA Florigo fryer turns out 1,000 pounds of chips an hour—the equivalent of a ’64 Chevy in just three hours!

This process is thrilling to behold. I stare, slack-jawed, at video of a bald scientist in a lab coat fiddling with the dials on a room-size piece of stainless-steel equipment from American Extrusion International. After raw materials like potato granules are poured into a massive funnel, they journey up a bucket ele­vator to the extruder hopper, where pressure cooking transforms them into a beige coagulation that comes pushing its way through a hole, where the waiting scientist grabs it.

Amazingly, he pulls the putty clear across the room without a single tear, creating a doughy suspension bridge so sturdy it requires no support. He feeds it into a second machine, as big as the Hadron supercollider, and the rope of dough transforms into thousands of identical chips, curls, puffs, or strips that head for an oven and then a massive “coating tumbler,” where “a slurry” of seasonings, flavorings, and colorings give them a golden glow. Viewing newborn snacks rolling around in a big cylinder is perversely enjoyable, weirdly disturbing, and impossible to stop watching. It’s snack porn.

Now that Squidzees have come this far, it’s time for package design, taking into account barrier strength so oxygen doesn’t get in and the smell of Squidzees doesn’t escape. Then there are tests: taste tests; moisture tests; oil-content tests. So many tests.

You wonder if it’s worth all the headaches after a Google search reveals four kinds of squid chips already made in China. Isn’t there an easier way?

Yes! “Food Service Special­­ties offers you ready-made dips and sauces,” explains a sales rep. “Then we let you add your own private label.” “Really? You guys make the dip and then print me a label that says it’s my secret family recipe? I can put my photo on it, wearing a straw hat and a monocle?” “Yes,” says the sales rep as you ditch the idea of Squidzees forever. After all, you always knew you were meant for the dip business.

Merrill Markoe is the author of Cool, Calm & Contentious, out now.