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By Cindy Nawiesniak

Jerky, it's not just for mountain men anymore

Jerky's storied history as a Native American and pioneer food staple reminds us of the great outdoors, roughing it and surviving alone in the wilderness. When jerky comes to mind many people think it is something you buy at the gas station as a road trip snack or to take along hunting or camping. Recently, jerky has gone all urban jungle as it has been rediscovered as a healthy, delicious, and flavorful snack for today's health-conscious consumers and now totals $1.5 billion in annual sales.

All-natural snack
Jerky has a long history as a food source, because it uses two of the most low-tech preservation methods known to man: drying and salting. That simplicity is why jerky is the perfect, modern, healthy snack. It can be made with as few as three ingredients; meat, salt, and seasoning. This short and simple ingredient list appeals to many consumers wanting an all natural-snack.

Chewy or tender
There are two kinds of jerky, whole muscle and ground and formed. Whole muscle jerky is made from slices of low-fat cuts of meat and retains their fiber and texture. The ground and formed style is easier to chew because it has been ground up into a paste and then formed and dried, making it more tender than the whole meat product.

Stash it
Portability is another reason jerky is growing in popularity. It is lightweight, needs no refrigeration, and fits into a gym bag or pocket just like a protein bar. An unopened package can have a shelf life of more than a year, so there will be no surprises if it is left in your office desk drawer for a month or more.

High protein
With high protein/low carbohydrate diets becoming more popular, jerky fits right in. A typical 3.5 oz. serving of beef jerky contains 31 grams of protein, 11 grams of carbohydrate and 150 calories, whereas a 2.8 oz. protein bar has 20 grams of protein, 40 grams of carbohydrate and 331 calories. Beef jerky fits the bill for people looking to add some variety to their high-protein snack choices.

Variety is the spice
Jerky has come a long way from its historical flavorings of salt and smoke that also served to preserve the snack. As more people choose jerky over protein bars, yogurt, and other high-protein snacks, newer flavors have evolved. Even famous chefs have joined the trend, lending their expertise to introduce spice combinations and trademark flavors. The variety of meat has also expanded from the traditional plain beef to many exotic types of meat, such as alligator, emu, and even salmon. Jerky is so popular that there is even tofu jerky so vegetarians don't feel left out.

Chew on this
Choices abound, and while traditional beef jerky is still ubiquitous in convenience marts and gas stations, the newer gourmet and exotic choices can be found at health food, upscale grocery, and online stores. As if just to prove that jerky is now a mainstream snack, there are several "jerky of the month" clubs. For the do it yourself crowd, a quick online search will produce a host of jerky recipes you can make at home. With all the new and delicious flavors, wide availability and a high protein content, meat jerky has carved out its place in the American snack food larder.

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