If you've taken a quick look around your local supermarket's checkout aisle recently, you've probably noticed an influx of beef jerky products flooding the space.
Why? How has dried meat suddenly become so popular? It's a multi-billion dollar industry with double-digit growth.
The answer, of course, is attributable in some part to the continuing snackification of America. About 1 in 10 consumers now report that they fully substitute snacks for meals. It's a trend born in part out of an on-the-go lifestyle and, in part, out of laziness. Busy consumers like Millennials just don't like to spend a lot of time cooking — at least, not on a daily basis. Many of them live, quite plainly, hand to mouth.
But why protein snacks? What makes meat so darn special? Why are we seeing gourmet jerky and other high-protein offerings crowd into the market? Well, it has to do a lot with Millennials' perceptions of nutritional value.
Is High-Protein Necessarily "Healthy?"
A lot of young adults eschew traditional snacks like high-calorie, sugary goodies because they are becoming increasingly health-conscious.
Sugar, to the Millennial mind, is bad. They scorn high-fructose corn syrup. They eat more energy bars than they do candy bars. They avoid M&Ms in favor of nuts and seeds.
Myriad popular food bloggers — a critical source of nutrition and wellness information for young adults — tout protein as a perfect snack. Millennial grocery shoppers see that beef jerky snacks are lower calorie (per serving) than sugary sweets and have read that, in addition to being lower in calories, protein snacks also improve satiety.
So, based on what they read and their own experiences, they opt for what they believe to be the healthier, more convenient choice.
But Is Health Conscientiousness The Only Trait Informing The High-Protein Trend?
No, not at all. Part of the answer lies in Millennials' cravings for "authenticity" and exoticism in food. They're bored with the fare they grew up on.
When they do opt to indulge their sweet teeth, they don't crave grocery checkout mainstays like Kit Kat and Payday, but instead purchase fair trade, 80% dark chocolate-and-wasabi bars. They buy all-natural peanut butter cups with certified organic ingredients.
In short, Millennials can be… well, a little bit pretentious to be completely honest.
Many jerky and protein bar producers have effectively capitalized on that, offering crazy meat bases (Kangaroo jerky, anyone? Alpaca? How about pineapple or seitan-based jerky for our vegans out there?). And they offer strange and interesting flavor combos, too — Enid's Sriracha Maple vegan jerky? — in clever, old-timey-feel packaging.
Jerky, like "craft" beer, is natural hipster bait. They can't fail to indulge in it. What this all boils down to is Millennial Americans — and young men, in particular — being who young Americans have traditionally been: meat-eating, beer-drinking, fun-loving people, albeit with a precociously elevated opinion of their self-professed enlightenment.
So How Can You Play To The Trend?
The kids, who won’t be kids for very much longer, are eventually going to wise up to their changing nutritional needs. The window is probably already beginning to close on salty snacks like jerky — after all, the earliest Millennials will begin hitting their 40s in 2020 or so, and they're going to start thinking about their heart health.
That's just five years away.
But their generational tendency to want guilt-free, high-nutrition, low-health impact snacks with lots of neat-o, super-cool flavors isn't likely to go away. Millennials are unlikely to suddenly become boring.
Food companies need to be working right now to develop low-calorie, high-nutritional value, low-sodium snacks that will play to aging Millennials' sensibilities. The high protein trend, in essence, needs to keep growing up.