Removing moisture from all types of food, including highly perishable meat and poultry, is one of the oldest forms of preservation. The art of drying meat by hanging a slab out in the sun dates back to nomadic societies who relied on this preservation technique to maintain an ample supply of energy-dense, non-perishable food while they traversed the lands.
Different cultures have varied drying methods and recipes, which can include salting and smoking, with or without the addition of flavors, herbs and spices. The meats are diverse, too, and include the common beef, chicken, pork and turkey, as well as the more exotic, such as duck, ostrich and venison.
Today, commercially produced jerky and other non-perishable meat snacks are made in carefully controlled and regulated manufacturing environments to ensure sanitary and food safety requirements are met. Even product described as artisan, hand-crafted or local must follow defined procedures that include good manufacturing practices and food safety protocol.
The beauty of the drying process is that it can be very simple and with few, and familiar, ingredients. In other words, jerky can be very clean label, the buzz word in the food marketing world. It’s also naturally high in protein, the leading nutrient many of today’s consumers are trying to increase in their diet. And finally, probably the most attractive attribute, jerky carries all types of flavor very well. From citrus to mesquite to sriracha, when moisture is pulled from marinated and seasoned meats, the flavors concentrate and get sealed in to produce a wide array of diverse meat snacks.
“Meat snacks are hot because the demand for protein is increasing,” according to Chris Running, founder and CEO, Caveman Foods LLC, San Francisco, manufacturers of chicken jerky and bars. “They are a healthy, portable source of protein.”
Meat snacks generated more than $383 million in sales in 2015 according to Schaumburg, Illinois-based Nielsen. While less than 3 percent of the more than $13 billion snack food category, meat snacks are a booming business thanks to innovation in flavor and form, as well as protein content.
In 2015, dollar sales of meat snacks grew 14.5 percent, just behind the fastest growing category of popped popcorn, which grew more than 16 percent to slightly more than $399 million. This was all while the much larger salty snack categories of potato chips and pretzels were flat.
Meat snacks have come a long way since the turn-of-the-century. They are no longer just comminuted meat products packed with sodium and preservatives and displayed by the register at a truck stop.
“We think having to tradeoff between taste and nutrition in meat snacks is a thing of the past,” Running says. “We now have the capability of creating great-tasting meat snacks that are far healthier than their predecessors. There are great-tasting options that are lower in sugar, lower in sodium and free of preservatives and fillers. This is the future for meat snacks. Expect to see many new forms and exotic flavors that deliver on this new portable, healthy protein profile.”
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