"I'm in pellets," said the man in the blue suit earnestly. "I'm not in particles."

Probably nobody was saying he was "in pellets" in Hall D of the Anaheim Convention Center, where the Natural Products Expo was going on last Sunday. But in Halls A and B, you certainly heard this kind of thing. They were hosting SNAXPO '98, the 61st annual conference of the Snack Food Assn.

Pellets are very big, snack-wise. Snack foods tend to be either potato or corn dough given a snacky shape, texture and flavor. Mind-boggling machines can turn pellets of dough into sheets, tubes, grids or three-dimensional "pillows"--like Rice Chex, only shaped like animals, faces or anything else you can think of.

The theme of SNAXPO '98 was "Snacking: a Global Vision." Former U.S. trade representative Carla Hills was scheduled to deliver an address on the international snack trade Monday.

There was already a healthy international quality, though, with representatives from 10 foreign countries (half a dozen companies from the Netherlands alone; very big potato industry there). The strongest international element was Mexican, because of the importance of corn products. Several manufacturers of serious big-deal processing machinery had Spanish-speaking salesmen.

Snacks Magazine, samples of which were being handed out, gave an even more vivid international picture. In Serbia, it turns out, a company is making potato chips (stapici chipsy) in hamburger, pizza and tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt salad) flavors and is aiming a Greek salad flavor at the Macedonian market. In Russia, Chee-tos uses the slogan "Ne grusti, pokhrusti," which means, "Don't be sad, crunch."

At any convention like this, you realize how many details of manufacturing we in the general public never have to think about. A number of companies were specialists in moisture and oil detection. One used aerospace-derived technology that could detect particles of glass even inside a glass jar (its parent company makes luggage-inspecting machines for airports). Another specialized in metal detection--the salesman liked dropping his pen into a production line and showing how fast it would be sucked out.

You also get to see really awesome machines, like Frigoscandia's potato chip maker: You drop a ton of potatoes in here, and a hundred yards (and probably a hundred million dollars) later, it's bagging a ton of potato chips over there. Frigoscandia didn't have the whole assembly line on hand--just a 20-foot-high jungle gym that serves a single function: washing surface starch off freshly cut potato slices.

The Reading Pretzel Machine Corp. had a sort of giant pretzel Wurlitzer. Punch in what you want here, and it starts making pretzels--or crackers or even dog biscuits. A monster machine called the Spectra Bagger weighed out bagfuls of potato chips a mile a minute and then formed the bags around them, all the while clattering like a trolley in an old cartoon.

The future of coating? TotalStat Spray Systems had an electrostatic sprayer--you couldn't even see the oil being applied; it just appeared on the surface as if by magic.


The future of flavorings? Too many to mention. At SNAXPO, you could sample potato chips that tasted of balsamic vinegar and corn puffs that tasted like marshmallows. A guy from the Michigan Asparagus Commission didn't actually have his own booth--he shared one with the Michigan Potato Industry Commission--but he was pushing a surprisingly convincing asparagus-based guacamole.

A lot of booths were offering samples, and on top of that, there was a snack-tasting display--four long aisles of snacks. As a result, the Convention Center's own snack bars seemed to be doing rather slow business. A young woman stood hour after hour at a frozen yogurt dispenser with the air of somebody who was wondering very hard why she'd ever come. Or maybe whether she shouldn't try her luck over in Hall D with the natural foods people.

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