Meat Snacks Are on Fire

Meat snack mania? Maybe. The U.S. market for meat snacks continues to evolve, although it’s a mature category.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

It’s cool to snack on meat jerky. It’s available in a range of flavors and meshes well with trends on snacking and protein. Even though consumers have been cutting back on center-of-the-plate meats, the jerky category maintained growth during the recession, as consumers continued to purchase low-cost snacks like beef jerky, according to market research firm IBISWorld.

In the past five years, beef jerky/meat snack consumption has climbed 18 percent, according to NPD Group. Snacking accounts for one in five eating occasions, says the group’s “Snacking in America” report. So more companies are entering the category and manufacturers are updating existing products to convey a healthier image with a wider selection of flavor options, particularly in the hot and spicy area.

No longer just a convenience-store favorite, savory meat snacks are touted as a good source of protein, are low in fat and usually are portion-controlled. Meats other than beef are being used with international flavors that are resonating with consumers, says KaiYen Mai, CEO of Fusion Jerky, South San Francisco, Calif. Fusion produces Asian-style jerky in turkey, chicken and pork versions as well as beef. Food trends are becoming more global, Mai says. “People like flavors that mix different cultures.”

Jerky’s popularity is allowing new companies like Chef’s Cut Real Jerky, New York, to get in on the action. Chef’s Cut started in 2009 with chef-inspired flavors and premium, hand-cut steak and white breast chicken and turkey. Founders and golf buddies chef Blair Swiler and Dennis Riedel were “tired of buying terrible jerky when they played a round of golf.” So they began smoking and selling tender, low-fat Chef’s Cut to golf courses and country clubs across the country, using Swiler’s smoking and marinating recipes.

Packed with 30g of protein, the snack is gluten- and nitrate-free. The beef varieties are Original Recipe and Chipotle Cracked Pepper; Buffalo Style and Honey Barbeque are made with chicken; and turkey jerky comes in Teriyaki. Chef’s Cut is launching a bacon jerky line in Maple, Applewood and Sriracha varieties. “Bacon has been one of the most popular foods for decades, and it’s only becoming more of an obsession,” adds CEO Bart Silvestro.

Duke’s Small-Batch Smoked steak strips is one of Thanasi Foods’ popular options. The Boulder, Colo.-based company smokes premium steak strips in spicy barbeque, tangy teriyaki and sweet bourbon varieties using “real hardwood.” For the Jim Beam Bourbon Glaze Steak Strips, the company soaks selected whole-muscle beef in the spirited Kentucky bourbon and then smokes and dries it. The process leaves virtually no alcohol in the final product yet imparts the distinct bourbon flavor. Duke’s beef jerky flavors include Original, Cracked Pepper, Honey Bourbon, Island Teriyaki and Roasted Cayenne.

Another take on meat snacks is Hillshire Brands’ Grilled Chicken Bites with four choices of zesty dipping sauces ranging from spicy to sweet. They’re also portion-controlled, gluten-free and filled with protein.

Over the past five years, Jack Link’s, Minong, Wis., says it has witnessed 32 percent growth in the $2 billion-plus meat snacks category. Last April, the company revised its brand to drive more growth with revised packaging and a new product formulation. Food scientists at the company worked for three years to develop a proprietary process to remove monosodium glutamate (MSG) and preservatives from the products without sacrificing taste, texture or quality throughout their shelf life.

Not only is Perky Jerky a catchy, rhyming name, the teriyaki-pepper jerky product can keep adults “focused and alert all day long.” The dried beef or turkey snack is made with a marinade infusion of guarana, which contains twice the amount of caffeine as coffee beans, and often used in energy drinks.

As long as consumers are interested in snacks, and especially those that are high in protein, low in fat and bursting with flavor –  and those seem like sure bets – meat snacks will continue on their upward trajectory.

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