November 2016 Issue

Meat Snack Fervor
By Judith C. Thalheimer
Today's Dietitian
Vol. 18, No. 11, P. 30

Move over pretzels and chips. Sales in the evolving meat snack category are rising as innovative, more healthful offerings hit store shelves.

The days of traditional jerky and meat sticks relegated to the convenience store checkout counter are over. These sodium- and nitrate-rich processed snacks have gotten a major makeover. Manufacturers are responding to increased demand for protein-based snacks with innovative, and often more healthful, offerings. Some large producers have introduced natural product lines, and small operations are joining the market with creative, savory flavors of jerky, sticks, bites, bars, and even trail mixes—many of which are touted as all-natural, less processed, healthier alternatives to traditional meat snacks. What's more, companies are making meat snacks with organic and non-GMO ingredients and without chemical nitrates and nitrites.

As a result of these innovations and increased consumer demand for protein, meat snacks have become more prominent than ever in the snack aisle. While they still make up less than 3% of the snack food category, dollar sales of meat snacks grew 14.5% in 2015, rising to more than $383 million.1 Some major meat snack brands reportedly have seen 10% growth or more every year between 2005 and 2015.2 While the category is growing overall, there's a clear rise in meat snack products seeking to capitalize on the expanding interest in more healthful snacking.

Trends Behind the Growth
The growth of the more healthful meat snacks market makes sense in light of the current global popularity of snacks that are natural and rich in protein.3 These new meat snacks also meet the needs of the growing clean eating and free-from trends. Not only do many include organic ingredients, they're made with meats like grass-fed beef or free-range and antibiotic-free poultry, and have simple ingredient lists and front-of-package statements about being preservative-free, gluten-free, free from added nitrates or nitrites, and more.

A 2014 Nielsen survey on snacking worldwide found that 31% of respondents look for protein in their snacks.4 While the desire for protein-rich snacks may have started with the popularity of low-carb diets, it has continued to grow even as that trend wanes.5 "Scientists have turned their attention to the role of protein in disease risk and prevention—as well as the role of protein in health promotion," says Jenna Bell, PhD, RD, senior vice president and director of Food & Wellness at Pollock Communications. "Protein has emerged as a way to manage hunger and aid in weight management, maximize muscle protein synthesis with exercise, and maintain lean body mass as we age. Combine that with the trending weight loss programs and diets like Paleo, and the popularity of protein for health has soared."

"Most Americans are consuming adequate protein," says Heather Mangieri, MS, RDN, CSSD, LDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of Fueling Young Athletes. "The problem lies in when it's consumed. Protein intake should be spread throughout the day, but it's more common to have a large protein source at dinner, and not necessarily at other meals and snacks." Meat-based snacks are one way to increase protein intake between meals.

The portability of jerky, meat sticks, and bars is right on trend as well. A 2015 survey on snacking motivations and attitudes by market intelligence company Mintel found that 77% of snackers prefer the convenience of ready-to-eat snacks.6 "Portable protein products have really skyrocketed in popularity as a way for people to get protein in mini meals and snacks," Mangieri says. "When it comes to protein sources, most need refrigeration. Meat snacks are an easy portable protein choice."

Meaty Innovation
"Beef jerky is a good protein source because it's low in fat and carbs," Mangieri continues. "Combine it with fruit and you have a balanced snack." Some manufacturers are creating snacks that move toward that balance. Trail mixes are tossed with jerky bits, dried fruits, and nuts; mixtures of dried meat, seeds, nuts, fruits, herbs, and spices are formed into snack bars; and bite-sized pieces of meat are encrusted with grains. With products like Lamb Currant Mint bar and the beef jerky-based Berry Blossom Hunt & Harvest Mix (, Chicken Meat with Sun-Dried Tomato and Kale Bites (, and Strawberry Black Pepper Slow-Baked Bison Bar (, there's a variety of choices for all (nonvegetarian) tastes. (See Table 1 for a sample of available products.)

Expanding on the traditional beef jerky, meat snack offerings are branching out to include products made with meats like turkey, chicken, pork, bison, elk, ostrich, wild boar, lamb, salmon, and venison. The flavors are also more adventurous. When meats are marinated and then dried, the flavors concentrate, and meat snacks carry all kinds of flavors well.1 Longtime favorites Original and Teriyaki have been joined by hot (such as Spicy Buffalo Style Chicken Strips from Oberto and Sriracha Real Bacon Jerky from Chef's Cut), Asian-inspired (Korean Barbecue or Szechuan Peppercorn beef jerky from Jack Link's-owned Lorissa's Kitchen), fruity (Pineapple Orange beef jerky or Basil Citrus turkey jerky by Hershey's Krave line), and even alcohol inspired (Blackberry Merlot beef jerky by Jerky Joint and Brewmaster's Pale Ale turkey jerky by Perky Jerky) varieties.

Health Claims
Along with varieties of meats, flavors, and forms, many newer arrivals on the meat snack scene have front-of-package claims that give them an aura of healthfulness not traditionally associated with jerky and meat sticks. "Claims on packages are sound bites intended to help the consumer pick a food that fits their personal taste or desire—whether it's 'natural' or associated with a health benefit," Bell says. Nutrition professionals should be aware of the science behind these claims so they can help clients make informed choices.

The 2014 Nielsen survey found 77% of respondents rated all-natural ingredients as very important or moderately important for their snack choices, making "all-natural" the highest rated of 20 health attributes surveyed.4 But the "all-natural" claim is loosely defined. "There is currently no legal definition of a 'natural' food," says Judy Harrison, PhD, a professor and extension food safety specialist at the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences department of foods and nutrition. "The Food and Drug Administration has not objected to the term being used if the food has no added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances added to it."

Several new meat snack brands are labeled "all natural" and are made without added chemical preservatives. They also feature ingredients like grass-fed beef, cage-free poultry, and organic and non-GMO ingredients that appeal to the natural foods consumer. However, clients should be reminded that all-natural foods aren't necessarily healthful foods. "A food isn't healthful just because it's natural. After all, sodium is natural, and high-sodium foods are still not a good choice," Bell says. "Being a single-claim shopper can be limiting. If you're always looking for 'all natural' and judge a food based solely on this claim, you may be missing important nutrients or other healthful options."

No Nitrates or Nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites are important preservatives that historically have been used in the manufacture of jerky and other cured meats. "The most important reason sodium nitrite or nitrate is added to cured meats is to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the type of bacteria that causes botulism, a very deadly type of food poisoning," says Mark Harrison, PhD, the Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor & Graduate Coordinator of food science and technology and a food microbiologist at the University of Georgia. "Other reasons are to develop the cured meat flavor, the cured meat color, and to help slow down the oxidation of fat that will make meat taste old and rancid. The concern over the addition of these compounds to food came from research showing that nitrites can combine with amines, breakdown products of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Nitrosamines were shown in some research to cause tumors in lab animals."

Although levels of residual nitrites in cured meat products have decreased by approximately 80% since the mid-1970s, claims that a processed meat product contains no nitrates or nitrites may be misleading.7,8 While some meat snack products are indeed preserved without the use of nitrites or nitrates, many products labeled "uncured," "no nitrites added," or "no nitrates added" aren't nitrate- or nitrite-free. These statements are allowed on processed meats preserved with celery powder, celery juice, or other natural plant sources of nitrate. "Nitrate and nitrite are part of the earth's nitrogen cycle, so anything that grows in soil will contain some amount of nitrate," Mark Harrison continues. "Vegetable sources of 'natural' nitrate include celery, beets, turnip greens, radishes, spinach, and many more, as well as sea salt." It's difficult to determine which products may truly be nitrate- and nitrite-free. Clients should be advised to look for celery juice, celery powder, or sea salt on ingredient lists, and for the required language such as "no nitrites except that which naturally occurs in …" on package labels.

Minimally Processed
While smoking and drying are technically considered "processing," they don't significantly alter the original product, so the processing is minimal. Minimally processed meat snacks appeal to consumers concerned about the risks attributed to processed meats. A recent report by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that consuming processed meat increases risk of gastrointestinal cancers.7 The preservation processes, which make products like meat snacks safe and shelf stable (not to mention tasty and tender), can lead to the formation of carcinogens. Curing meats is one of the most worrisome processes. Curing requires the addition of nitrates and nitrites, which can lead to the creation of carcinogens such as N-nitroso-compounds.7 While natural, minimally processed products may be less of a cancer risk, numerous uncertainties remain. Smoking, which is considered minimal processing, can cause the formation of carcinogenic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. And processing isn't the only concern: The heme iron in red meat (processed or unprocessed) is associated with potential cancer risk,7 so nutrition professionals may want to direct consumers to meat snacks made from nonred sources such as chicken or turkey.

High intake of red and processed meats also has been linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes compared with other protein sources.7 It's estimated that 644,000 deaths worldwide are related to high consumption of processed meats, and the greater the consumption, the higher the risk.7 How much safer "minimally processed" meats may be than other processed meats is unknown at this time, but some experts suggest it's best to be cautious.7 "Like anything, more is not better," Mangieri says. "We have to watch our total intake."

Like nitrites and nitrates, salt can be used to make dried meats safe for consumption. "Salt is a natural preservative that has been used for centuries," Mark Harrison says. "It inhibits the growth of spoilage organisms and harmful bacteria." Most Americans consume more than the recommended amount of sodium. "The sodium content of these products is something we have to be concerned about," Mangieri says. "Even athletes, who may think they need more sodium because they sweat more, most likely don't need as much as they would get consuming products like meat snacks multiple times throughout the day." The wider variety of products available in the marketplace includes several lower-sodium choices (see Table 2 on page 34), but there's a great deal of variety within and across brands. Clients should be advised to read labels carefully. "People need to watch portion size and consumption throughout the week to avoid excess sodium intake," Mangieri says.

Wrap Up on Meat Snacks
"These snacks are easy to pack, nonperishable, and a quick, easy addition to a balanced mini meal or snack," Mangieri continues. "I recommend clients choose their favorite flavor and make their own trail mix, or try adding jerky to soups or noodles for a chewy but tasty protein boost." While meat snacks can be a helpful addition to a healthful diet, "these products tend to be pricey," Mangieri adds. That may not be an issue for some consumers, especially if they like what they see in the ingredient list. A 2016 Mintel survey found that 73% of consumers said they would be willing to pay more for snacks with high-quality ingredients.9

When considering meat snacks, consumers do need to be aware of potential health concerns, such as the presence of sodium and other preservatives, even in 'minimally processed,' 'all-natural,' or 'nitrate-free' brands. As with all things, balance, variety, and moderation are the key to fitting meat snacks into a healthful dietary pattern. "The best advice for a healthful diet is to eat a variety of foods and get plenty of fruits and vegetables," Judy Harrison says. "This not only provides you with a variety of nutrients but also minimizes exposure to any one compound you may be concerned about."

"I want food to have a nutritional benefit to me, but I don't expect one food to deliver everything," Bell says. "If I'm choosing a snack or part of a meal, I look to specific foods for protein or fiber or phytonutrients or some attribute that makes them beneficial in my varied, diverse diet." For those looking to balance their snacks and up their protein intake, appropriate intake of lower-sodium, less-processed meat snacks may well give them the nutritional benefit they're looking for. There's certainly a wide variety to choose from.

— Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, is a freelance nutrition writer, a community educator, and the principal of JTRD Nutrition Education Services.


1. Berry D. Portable protein. Meat+Poultry website. Published August 2, 2016.

2. Conick H. Protein popularity: meat snacks poised for growth. Bakery and website. Published October 19, 2015.

3. MCP-2223: snack foods — a global strategic business report. Global Industry Analysts, Inc. website. Published November 25, 2015.

4. Nielsen. Snack attack: what consumers are reaching for around the world. Published September 2014.

5. Berry D. Premium meat snacks trending. Food Business News website. Published March 22, 2016.

6. A snacking nation: 94% of Americans snack daily. Mintel website. Published July 9, 2015.

7. Phares EH. WHO report says eating processed meat is carcinogenic: understanding the findings. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health website. Published November 3, 2015.

8. Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;90(1):1-10.

9. Three in four Americans are willing to pay extra for snacks with high quality ingredients. Mintel website. Published July 21, 2016.