US: Jerky undergoes a makeover and renaissance as a healthy snack

Unlike the passionate love affair most South Africans have with biltong, the American equivalent, beef jerky, has always been something of an outcast food in the US, a favourite of truckers and staple of gas-station checkouts. Things are changing, and it’s undergoing a metamorphosis as a healthy snack.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, beef jerky is emerging as a hot “health food” in supermarketss, with jerky makers racking up steep sales gains for moister, tastier and fancier dried-meat products, some in flavours like Basil Citrus and Lemon Garlic.

It’s almost a jerky renaissance, and the reason is that jerky has something very few other salty-snacks can claim: Lots of protein.

For consumers with a serious fitness schedule, protein is a magical weapon in the constant drive to stave off hunger and avoid too many carbs. The protein content in a one-ounce serving of jerky approaches that of some protein bars. Many jerky manufacturers also emphasise the “natural” and “guilt free” bona fides of an all-meat snack.

Representatives of Krave jerky, based in Sonoma, Calif, often hand out samples to marathon competitors. “When they cross the finish line, it’s, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so hungry, this little granola bar won’t cut it,’ ” says company spokeswoman Katie Tessitore. “That’s one of the most powerful moments for us.”

Sales of jerky rose 13.6% to $760.2 million for the year ended August 12, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago market-research firm. That follows several years of growth, including a 13.4% sales rise in 2011.

Whether they are looking to build muscle or slim down, consumers are exhibiting a growing appetite for protein-rich snacks. In a 2010 survey of 2 000 consumers, 38% said they “always or usually choose foods or beverages because they are high in protein,” compared with 22% in 2002, according to HealthFocus International, a St Petersburg, Florida, food market-research firm.

Meat jerky “is like Greek yoghurt for men,” says Lu Ann Williams, head of research for Innova Market Insights, based in the Netherlands.

Last year alone, Innova tracked 140 “meat snack” introductions compared with 75 two years earlier. Other protein launches last year included 55 new hummus products, compared with 33 in the earlier period, and 240 new protein bars, compared with 130 earlier.

A serious hurdle, though, stands in the way of jerky’s upward sales trajectory. “We call it jerky shame,” says Tom Ennis, chief executive of Oberto Brands, of Kent, Washington, which has relaunched its jerky line with seven “all natural” products, including Hickory Beef and Spicy Sweet.

Some male consumers have told the company they are embarrassed to eat jerky in front of their girlfriends. “There’s just this nasty perception out there” of jerky as loaded with salt, preservatives and all sorts of artificial ingredients, Ennis says.

Oberto has set out to “rehabilitate” jerky, removing corn syrup, dextrose, the preservative sodium nitrite and flavour-enhancing monosodium glutamate from its products. (The Teriyaki varieties contain soy sauce, which the company says contains naturally-occurring MSG.) A BBQ Pork jerky from Oberto is so popular around the office that Ennis says even he has trouble getting it at times…..

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