Beef jerky (Bigstock)

Chips have long been a favorite snack for Americans, but they may be starting to lose their edge. A recent study from Nielsen has found that sales of meat snacks, like jerky and convenience-packaged dry sausage sticks, has grown, while chip sales have slowed. And if Slim Jims are what comes to mind, think again: New competitors have entered the market, driving growth by emphasizing their wholesome qualities and marketing toward consumers on specialized diets.

Meat snack sales have increased 3.5 percent over the last year to $2.8 billion, according to Nielsen, with 7 percent compound growth over the last four years. Though chips sales are more than twice that amount, the category posted a dollar growth of just 1.7 percent last year.

American households spend an average of $25.81 on meat snacks every year, which puts them in second place in the salty snacks category, behind the average $35.37 people spend on potato chips. Households spend more money on meat snacks than they do on cheese snacks, popcorn or corn chips, though that may be because meat snacks can command higher prices.

So what’s with the sudden popularity of jerky? Consumers are snacking more and eating fewer sit down meals, which has led them to look for “snacks that pack a nutritional punch” said David Walsh, vice president of communications and membership for SNAC, an international trade association for the snack industry.

There has also been a dietary trend away from carbohydrates and toward protein, which may lead some consumers to eat fewer chips and more meats, particularly meat snacks. “Meat snacks have benefited from the increasing prevalence of Americans trying to eat more protein as part of a healthful diet,” said Jordan Rost, vice president of consumer insights at Nielsen, in an email.

The market for them is growing even as meat departments in grocery stores are lagging, according to Food Navigator, which reported that sales in grocery meat departments declined 2.5 percent last year. That decline was due to deflationary pressures that have brought down the cost of meat, said Rost.

Many newer, upscale brands have eschewed the hypermasculine marketing that brands like Slim Jim once favored. They’re more likely to highlight the fact that their meat is grass-fed, and their products are gluten-free and Paleo diet friendly. Consumer research firm Mintel found that nearly three-fourths of consumers crave healthier salty snack options, and that 79 percent want to be able to recognize a snack’s ingredient list, according to trade publication Convenience Store Decisions.

That’s why you may be seeing more and more of brands like Naked Cow, whose motto is “Just Beef Jerky — No ‘Udder’ Stuff”; Chomps, which touts its Whole 30 approval; and Epic Provisions, which puts the number of grams of protein in each of its bars in huge font, along with “100 percent grass-fed.” Many products are geared toward Millennials, especially those doing CrossFit, a demographic to whom some brands, like Wild Zora, market directly.

That move is in line with overall snacking trends. “Things like organic, natural snacks, clean label, are growing as a whole,” Walsh said.

Big brands are catching on, too. ConAgra, which owns Slim Jim, recently purchased Duke’s, a maker of snack sausages with folksy branding that emphasizes whole ingredients. In 2015, Hershey purchased Krave, a brand making meat sticks with ingredients that sound like a gourmet meal: spicy red pepper pork with black beans, or sesame garlic beef with sweet potato.

But could meat snacks beat the chip industry? It’s not likely to happen soon. While the market for meat snacks is growing at a faster rate, potato chips still come out on top in terms of units sold: According to data provided by Nielsen, more than 3 billion packages of potato chips sold in the last year, compared to 900 million meat snacks.

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