Native Americans made pemmican. The Quechua, an Incan tribe, made ch’arki. And, for decades, companies with guy names like Jack Link’s, Tony Roma’s, and Slim Jim made products that dangled by the cash register of places frequented by teenaged boys and long-haul truckers. Those fellas bought up meat sticks, bags of meat strips, and even a meat-floss jerky “chew,” sold in chewing tobacco tins.
People have loved the concentrated flavor and chewy eating experience of jerky for a long time. But lately, jerky has been changing, trading its trucker hat and Carthartt for yoga pants, a puka shell necklace, and a man bun. It’s a midlife crisis that has brought words like “sustainability,” “plant-based,” and “regenerative agriculture” into a snack category that’s shedding its bro-town vibe and transforming itself as a kinder, gentler chew.
“I think what propelled jerky from gas stations was the rise of boutique and craft manufacturing that really took off with millennials,” says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a consultancy for foodservice manufacturers and operators. “They appreciate nostalgia items and, I think, the shift of those items from ‘kitschy’ or ‘low brow’ to high end.” The trend also was propelled, Webster says, by the rise of Atkins, Keto, and other protein-focused diets. “As a result, jerky became the ultimate protein-forward snack.”
And now jerky is shifting again, offering higher-quality proteins like grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon, and branching out with plant-based options that include ingredients like mushroom, tomato, jackfruit and durian.
“There’s a lot of eco-anxiety out there, and people are looking for tangible things to do to help the climate,” says Spike Mendelsohn, co-founder and head chef of Eat the Change, whose organic mushroom jerky is available in flavors like hickory smokehouse, teriyaki ginger, maple mustard, and habanero BBQ. “Humans are becoming more conscious about their diets, and they’re seeking balance through more plant-based foods. During the pandemic, we saw the rising popularity of ‘snackification,’ and there’s an appetite for snacks like ours that are chef-crafted and plant-based.”
“We’re all about more mindful snacking,” says Mary Mooney, owner and president of Bella Sun Luci, which makes vegan tomato jerky in flavors like teriyaki & cracked pepper, sriracha and hickory smoked. (The Takeout was able to sample this tomato jerky at the 2021 Sweets & Snacks Expo.) “We discovered that high-fiber sun-dried tomatoes will absorb flavor similar to the way meat does. We love that our jerky is very natural. It isn’t a ground-up combination of stuff—it’s a tomato with a unique twist. And I think it’s a lot more fun as a snack than raw carrots.”
While vegetables are changing up the jerky game, even traditional meat versions are getting a mindful overhaul. “Consumers, especially younger ones, are demanding better, and they want their food to be environmentally responsible,” says Sidd Singhal, senior brand manager of EPIC animal-based protein bars and snacks. The brand’s mission is to improve the lives of animals, support human health, and help heal the land. “Meat can be viewed as part of the solution,” Singhal says. “We’re offering meat done right.”
Another competitor in the meat-based jerky category is KRAVE, which was founded in 2009 at the beginning of the jerky boom. “We’re offering an elevated, flavor-forward jerky made by people who live for food and have fun doing it,” says chief brand officer Rusti Porter. “When you look at jerky and meat snack products today, you see that premium brands with out-of-the-box flavor profiles, cleaner ingredient panels, and improved textures are now more the norm than when we launched.”
Whether you’re choosing a plant-based or animal protein variety, it’s good to remember that some things about jerky haven’t changed. It’s still a snack that provides portability, intense flavor, and a hearty chew. As Porter points out, “It’s shelf-stable and doesn’t turn to mush in your gym bag or suitcase, so it’s an excellent choice for fighting off hunger on the go or giving you a boost pre- or post-workout.”