Soup-To-Nuts Podcast

Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: The rise and evolution of meat snacks in America

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In the past few years, Americans’ growing demand for protein and desire for on-the-go food opened the door for meat jerky to re-position itself as a healthy, convenient snack, which eventually lead to a full-blown love affair with all types of meat snacks – including sticks, bars and even pork rinds.

The upshot has been a deluge of innovation and a surge in meat snack sales, which Datamonitor Consumer data predicts will climb as high as $1.2 billion by 2018 in the US. That is an 18.6% increase from just three years ago.

This episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast explores where the meat snack segment is, where it is going and what is driving consumer interest in the category.

Bart Silvestro, CEO of Chef’s Cut Real Jerky, explained as recently as five years ago the meat snack category was always considered a convenience store or truck stop snack and jerky couldn’t even be found in a mainstream grocery store – let alone meat sticks. 

But he says the category has evolved slowly first to included different flavor options, then additional protein sources and in the last few years it really tackled some of the attributes that held it back by using cleaner ingredients and new cooking techniques to produce a softer, more tender chew.

“Today’s consumers are much more discerning than they were 10 years ago. They are looking for clean ingredients, better nutritional panels and they want to know what they are eating and that it is good for themselves,” Silvestro said.

With jerky as the leader in this new era for meat snacks, other products are quickly following suit – including meat sticks, a line of which Silvestro launched at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore.

“Meat sticks are about half or 48% of the total meat snack category today. And most of the meat sticks on the market today are stuff like mechanically separated chicken and ingredients that you look at and you wouldn’t want to even feed your dog,” he said.

Chef’s Cut is changing that by launching sticks made with premium ingredients, including chicken, which is new to the sub category, Silvestro said. His 1-ounce sticks, which hit store shelves Oct. 1, are 12 inches but have only 60 calories, 1 gram of fat and 8 grams of protein – making them a good grab-and-go or eat-and-run product for joggers, hikers or parents on the move between their children’s soccer games and dance classes.

An added benefit the sticks have over jerky: “Your hands stay clean while you eat it,” Silvestro added.

Are alternative proteins coming soon?

Silvestro also mentioned that the future of meat snacks will include alternative proteins, such as ostrich & elk, which was echoed by Eugene Kang, who co-founded Country Archer in 2011, and is a notable player in the artisanal meat jerky space.

Kang, however, noted a problem with the alternative protein sources can be sufficient access for scalability. With this in mind, Kang said a bigger seller for meat snacks in the future will be claims about the quality of the protein, such as grass-fed, organic or antibiotic- and hormone-free, which Country Archer promotes on its products.

Kang also agreed with Silvestro’s assessment that meat jerky will continue to thrive, but that it was time to diversify into other meat snacks. And so Country Archer earlier this year made the move to expand its jerky-focused business into the nascent meat bar sector.  

Kang sees potential for meat bars by marrying them with protein bars – so focusing on the functional aspects of the food and targeting adventurers and functional fitness enthusiasts, he said.

Are pork rinds coming back?

Not all meat snacks are soft and chewy. Some are crispy and crunchy – as in the case of chicharrones or pork rinds. The deep fried pig skins are another truck stop staple that is undergoing a renaissance similar to that of jerky.

Ryan Farr, founder of 4505 Meats which is a whole animal meat company, is repositioning pork rinds as a protein-packed, paleo-friendly snack that also takes a stab at reducing food waste.

He explained that he created 4505 Chicharrones seven years ago in his apartment “out of frustration of having too much waste of skin from butchering the animal. I really wanted to utilize the whole animal, but I had a lot of wasted skin because there is not so much you can do with it. So, I came up with our method of making chicharrones.”

He said the pork rinds are ideal to crunch on with a beer but also are well-suited to pack in children’s lunch boxes as a chip alternative.

Consumers like chicharrones because they conjure nostalgic images of eating them as children on car trips or at carnivals, Farr said. He also noted they are drawn to the product’s nutritional profile, which includes 9 grams of protein and 0 grams of carbs and they are gluten-free and paleo certified.

Plant-based meat snacks rise

This idea of all meat all the time is great – for meat-eaters. But what about all those snackers out there who are vegetarians or vegans or even flexitarians who want to try something new?

Lightlife, the maker of many plant-based alternatives, has the vegetarians and vegans covered with the launch of its Smart Jerky

At Expo East, where the product launched, Brad Lahrman, director of marketing for Lightlife explained the soy-based jerky is “similar to other animal based jerkies out there. It has a good chew to it. It is not the kind of chew that is going to break your jaw but it still has that density and texture that you are really not missing out on anything by having a plant based jerky.”

The future of meat snacks

Back on the animal side of the meat snacking trend, manufacturers are optimistic about the future of the category but also tightlipped on the details of their product development – which is understandable given the stiff competition.

But looking at how jerky and meat sticks were repositioned and the unexpected entrance of meat bars, it might not be a stretch to think that other traditional American meat snacks that have been relegated to dusty corner stores and forgotten by the masses, such as pickled sausage and kippered beefsteak, could see a similar resurgence in the future.

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