A quick between-meal snack can help take the edge off of hunger until the next meal, but not all snacks are created equal. As consumers pay more attention to what they are eating, they are realizing that protein can satisfy a hungry appetite better than salty snacks or cookies and candies. Meat snacks are gaining in popularity, and what used to be a niche market is growing steadily, with everyone from start-ups to major corporations putting new products on the market.

Mary Chapman, senior director, product innovation for Technomic Inc., says that a couple of trends taking place in the marketplace are favoring meat as a snack option.

“Consumers are snacking more overall, and they’re often looking for something that might have more substance or staying power than candy or chips,” she says. “Also, protein is seen as more healthy, so a jerky or meat snack has that going for it.”

Other attributes help to give consumers a favorable viewpoint toward jerky and snack sticks. Products made with lean beef or turkey can be considered better for you, Chapman says. Additionally, some consumers view the snacking category as a safe way to try a more exotic protein, like bison or venison.

What about kangaroo, wild boar, alligator or rabbit? Those are some of the more exotic varieties that can be found at the House of Jerky website or one of its locations nationwide. The company was started by Ron and Janie Hargett in 1996, and it offers 19 different types of proteins, to satisfy even the most adventurous consumer.

Ron Hargett used to sell jerky wholesale at convenience stores when he had the idea of opening a store devoted to meat snacks, Janie recalls.

“He opened up the very first jerky store in 1996 in a 150-square-foot space with only 3 flavors: Natural Beef, Teriyaki Beef and Hot Beef,” she says. “We now have a total of 32 store locations with plans to open up more in the future. We have a moderate growth plan for 3 stores per year.”

The combination of proteins and flavor possibilities gives House of Jerky a massive inventory, to please everyone from jerky traditionalists to more adventurous eaters. The company offers variety packs and a Jerky of the Month Club for those consumers who want to try a little bit of everything.

“In my opinion the appeal to our jerky is the uniqueness, variety of flavors and quality of the product,” Hargett says.

Consistency is another valued attribute, she adds, noting that House of Jerky has been fortunate to work with the same manufacturer since 1998.

Jerky is the leader of the meat snack category, but other products are showing the most growth, notes Robert Gay, marketing director for Carl Buddig & Co.

“The growth in the meat snack category is coming from other segments such as sticks and meat and cheese combo packs,” he says.

The Chicago-based company’s Old Wisconsin brand boasts several top-selling items in the meat snack market. Along with Buddig’s success with its own brand, the company has licensed its beef, turkey and pepperoni meat sticks to the Frigo Cheese Heads brand refrigerated meat/cheese product line.

“Popularity of other options in the meat snack category (sticks, bites, etc.) certainly is helped by the tremendous value offered versus jerky,” he explains. “For example, Old Wisconsin 4-ounce Bites SRP [suggested retail price] is 40 percent less than major brand’s 2.85 oz. jerky package — almost twice the size and half of the retail price.”

Old Wisconsin has focused on meeting consumer demand for non-sugary snacks and meal replacement options. Its Fast Fuel Bites and Sticks product was released in May 2015 as a low-calorie alternative to the energy bar market. The company’s success in the turkey product sector was bolstered with the addition of a Honey Turkey flavor in 4-, 6- and 9-ounce sizes, as well as larger bulk sizes for retail deli and foodservice.

Much like the rest of the meat industry, the snack category has also seen growth in the products with qualities that consumers find favorable – natural, organic, preservative-free, etc. Old Wisconsin released a natural product line in December 2015. Natural Cut bites, sticks and summer sausage contain no nitrates or nitrites, artificial ingredients, MSG and are gluten-free. Gay says that the new products will help meet the demands of families as they embrace more natural and healthier snack options.

“It’s important to us that our process stays completely natural from farm to smokehouse to consumers,” he says.

Another company that has succeeded in the natural foods sector is Vermont Smoke & Cure, of Hinesburg, Vt. The company prides itself on using simple and, whenever possible, local ingredients and humanely raised meats. Most of the products start in test batches from CEO Christopher Bailey’s kitchen, and the company’s recently launched line of snack sticks are no exception.

“We saw a need for a portable, single serving meat snack with lower sodium, less fat and a more culinary flavor profile – more like a portable sausage in many ways,” Bailey says.

The company’s line of meat sticks covers all the major proteins, from BBQ Beef to Ancho Pepper Turkey to Rosemary Thyme Chicken. Each package mentions attributes like vegetarian fed, raised without antibiotics or added hormones.

The market for snack sticks has grown to the extent that some of the largest meat processors in the country have entered the market with new products. However, there is still plenty of room for small companies that can meet its customers’ needs, Bailey says.

“Consumers are looking for foods they can trust, from companies they trust and whose values they align with,” he says. “Vermont Smoke & Cure has direct relationships with many of our suppliers that we’re proud of - and we talk about and show them off. We carry out processing as a service for farmers who direct market, whether at farmers markets, to local stores, or via a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture model), and so provide a critical piece of agricultural infrastructure. We seek out and preferentially purchase ingredients from small farmers in our area whenever it makes economic sense for all involved.

“All of this is at the core of who we are and so we pursue it with passion,” Bailey adds. “I expect these would be hard for large companies to try to adopt.”