An unusual type of protein snack is after the hearts and wallets of average Americans
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Companies from enormous chocolate makers to healthy-food startups are investing big on these protein-heavy snacks - despite how bizarre they sound.
Hershey is launching Krave dried meat protein bars in August, with flavors like blueberry barbecue beef after acquiring the jerky brand last year.
General Mills acquired meat bar industry leader, Epic Bar, in January. Startups like Kratos, Omnibar, and Caveman Foods are debuting meaty bars of their own, which are taking off not only in specialty stores, but also at mainstream retail giants like Whole Foods and Costco.
The power of protein
The rise of the new snack is rooted in a wider movement towards protein-rich on-the-go options.
American consumers are moving away from many of the diet staples that previously dominated the portfolios of companies like General Mills and Hershey. Sales growth of chocolate in the US sales growth has slowed each year since 2010, reports the Wall Street Journal, while cereal sales dropped 5% from 2009 to 2014.
Meanwhile, protein is hotter than ever. In 2006, 39% of the US population said they sought out foods that are high in protein, according to the National Marketing Institute. By 2014, 53% were seeking high-protein options.
Companies across the food industry have tried to tap into the high-protein trend. Fast-food chains began testing high-protein offerings, such as McDonald's Greek yogurt and Taco Bell's high-protein Cantina Power Bowl. Kraft debuted "Portable Protein Packs" in 2014. Before purchasing Epic Bar, General Mills attempted to profit off of the trend - without necessarily following through on the nutrition - with its launch of Cheerios Protein.
"The food industry is evolving rapidly these days, and I think that's largely driven by millennials who are much more demanding in terms of authenticity in terms of genuinely better-for-you ingredients," says Chris Running, founder of Caveman Foods.
Still, the question remains: Why would someone choose to eat dried meat smushed together into a bar when there are so many other high-protein options on the market?
One reason is that many consumers believe that meat is as all-natural as you can get when you're seeking protein.
"I was personally inspired to develop a sort of new protein bars - how we refer to our Chicken Primal Bars - because I was just frankly disgusted by some of these other protein bars on the market that were sort of just candy bars," says Running, who was influenced by the paleo diet to put meat front-and-center in Caveman Foods.
Lean meat options, such as chicken, remain some of American's favorite sources for healthy protein, especially among millennial consumers.
The rise of the paleo diet has encouraged the trend, as the so-called "caveman diet" encourages the consumption of lean meat and vegetables and discourages eating grains, legumes, and seed oils. Paleo-centric blogs recommend meat bars such as Epic, saying the bars are some of the best snacks around, especially for customers who are on a "more strict paleo" diet than others.
"Oddly enough, the roots of Epic were planted shortly after Katie and I became vegetarians," writes Epic Bar co-founders Katie Forrest and Taylor Collins on the company website. "Unable to maximize our own vigor and wellness, we looked for answers in the whole foods consumed by our human ancestors. Within a week of adopting, what is now called, the 'paleo diet' which emphasizes healthy animal fats, grass fed protein, and leafy vegetables, our bodies and minds radiated with exuberance."
How the average American got on board
Perhaps the most surprising part of the movement that has brought about the era of meat bars is that these snacks aren't just for athletes on bizarre diets. These bars are geared towards the average, semi-active consumer - and, so far, they're selling.
"It's an audience that's interested in learning more about paleo… but I don't think it's an audience that's necessarily 100% paleo," says Running, who reports Costco sales of Caveman Foods products increased 199% in the Northeast compared to the same period last year. "Our audience is, by and large, one that is trying to find good-for-you products to incorporate into their daily lifestyle."
While Krave meat protein bars haven't hit the market yet, the brand is similarly anti-elitist when it comes to its customer base. From the beginning, the company has aimed to attract the "non-jerky user," focusing on female customers and others who would see the treat as an all-natural snack, not a gas station staple.
Health trends, like Paleo-inspired and high-protein diets, have gone from something only elite athletes and fitness buffs would consider to part of the mainstream nutrition conversation. Endless health blogs and popular meal-prep Instagram accounts have made wellness and nutrition aspirational - a lifestyle that people can envision themselves achieving.
While consumers are increasingly interested in wellness, most people don't have time or energy to commit to intensive diets like the hyper-committed paleo plan.
When you combine intense interest in apparently nutritious, high-protein snacks with consumers' need for convenience, you end up with customers craving meat bars.
"We know we're not going to go backwards and start eating Twinkies," says Running. Instead, he and others in the industry are banking on the fact we're all going to be eating meat bars - in well-labeled packaging that brags about protein and all-natural ingredients.
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