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Meat Trends Favor Snacking, Affordability

From charcuterie to lunch meat and jerky, consumers clamor for convenient protein
Photograph: Shutterstock

Amid a long pandemic winter, consumers are seeking satisfying, protein-rich bites to sustain their energy throughout the day. And whether they have an eye toward eating more nutrient-dense, higher-fat foods as part of a ketogenic diet or they’re just trying to reach for something other than a bag of chips at 3 p.m., consumers’ shifting snacking attitudes and behaviors have been a boon for the meat category.

More than three-quarters (78%) of registered dietitians polled about nutrition trends in late 2020 by Today’s Dietitian magazine said consumers are moving away from traditional meals and toward more frequent snacking. That’s a trend that, as with the rise of grocery e-commerce and contactless payment, didn’t start during the COVID-19 pandemic but has accelerated in it.

Eighty-eight percent of adults say they’re snacking at least as much during the pandemic as before, according to Mondelez International’s 2020 State of Snacking report, released in November and conducted in partnership with The Harris Poll. Moreover, 52% say snacking has been a “lifeline” during the pandemic.

“Millennials and those who are working from home right now are especially likely to say they prefer snacks over meals,” Modelez International Chairman and CEO Dirk Van de Put noted in an introduction to the report.

Small comfort in the form of a quick, craveable, out-of-the-ordinary snack: It’s one reason why Evan Inada, director of charcuterie for Columbus Craft Meats, says consumers are broadening their snack horizons to include meats and cheeses.

“We treat charcuterie almost as therapeutic in these times,” Inada says. “You pick up your favorite cheese, your favorite couple of salamis … that’s something you can enjoy during your week of Zoom meetings.”

And more Zoom meetings likely lie ahead in 2021 as most Americans expect the COVID-19 health crisis to last well into the second half of the year, IRI reported in January, with 32% of shoppers surveyed in mid-December expecting the pandemic to last seven to 12 more months and 35% expecting it to last into 2022.

With many consumers still working exclusively or mostly remotely—and 83% of office workers saying they’d like the option to work from home at least once a week, a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey found—refrigeration-dependent snacks such as charcuterie packs and deli meats on crackers stand to continue to hold strong appeal.

The Growth in Processed Meats

Overall, dollar sales of processed meat were up 15.7% in 2020 over 2019, and volume sales rose 10.1% for the year, according to market researcher IRI. Combined with dollar and volume gains for fresh meat, “This translates into an additional $12.7 billion in meat department sales during the pandemic,” 210 Analytics Principal Anne-Marie Roerink noted in a report on the data.

Across the (cutting) board, all categories of processed meats tracked by IRI saw dollar sales gains in each month from March through December 2020. Bacon, packaged lunch meat and processed chicken closed out the year particularly strong, recording higher growth than they had during the back-to-school period of August and September.

Processed meats offer heat-and-eat or straight-from-the-fridge convenience and can be an appealing choice for consumers looking for higher-protein, low-carbohydrate snacks. Especially when packaged in familiar formats—think chips—or offered as familiar flavors in new formats, they can be eye-catching options on store shelves or online.

The Kroger Co. recently introduced Kroger-brand shaved Buffalo chicken breast, touting on the packaging that the product contains 23 grams of protein per 4-ounce serving. Also new from the Cincinnati-based retailer are turkey and beef Jerky Mixups, individual-portion snack packs featuring jerky plus nuts and seeds and/or dried fruit.

Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joe’s last summer debuted organic uncured turkey jerky, packaged in 3-ounce resealable bags and made from organic sliced turkey breast flavored with organic honey and organic tamari soy sauce. For consumers seeking a heat-and-eat meat snack or out-of-the-box lunch, St. Cloud, Minn.-based Coborn’s in October rolled out Chickles, marinated chicken tenders skewered with thick-cut pickle chips and then breaded and fried. The product launched as part of Coborn’s new Oh My Gotta Buy private-label line.

On the CPG side, Dietz & Watson offers Sweet Sopressata Medallions, promoting them as “ideal for keto on the go,” as well as salami-wrapped mozzarella cheese sticks. Hormel Foods Corp., whose Columbus Craft Meats brand debuted the Columbus Charcuterie Tasting Board in late 2019, identified “creative charcuterie” as one of its top food trends for 2021. And General Mills-owned Epic Provisions added chip-shaped Cracked Pepper Chicken Crisps and Pink Himalayan + Sea Salt Chicken Crisps to its roster of meat snacks last summer.  

Portion-controlled packs such as charcuterie cups or jerky snack packs also are helping consumers balance cravings and health-consciousness. In Mondelez’s State of Snacking report, among those who seek portion-controlled snacks, 37% said individually portioned servings help them “eat enjoyable or indulgent food without guilt.” A similar share, 38%, said these portions help them feel more in control of snacking.

Smaller portions of meat can also be a fit for consumers embracing flexitarianism. “Every indicator continues to point toward flexitarian options being a top category for growth,” says John Brewer, VP of sales and marketing at Pekin, Ill.-based Excalibur Seasonings.

As some consumers shift away from “three square meals” with an ample portion of protein at the center of their dinner plate, there’s opportunity to keep the hunger-sating meats they enjoy in their diet in smaller portions at other dayparts.

When the Price is Right

Finally, but significantly, there are important price considerations favoring meat snacks and processed meat products amid a protracted economic slump that is inextricable from the COVID-19 public-health crisis. For price-sensitive consumers, shelf-stable meat products such as jerky and canned chunk chicken can be a less-expensive protein option vs. fresh meat or away-from-home food choices.

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index declined in November and December as COVID-19 cases surged across the country and the labor market stumbled—the U.S. economy added fewer than expected jobs in November and saw an overall loss of jobs in December, its first such loss since April.

Price-consciousness will continue for a great many consumers in 2021. Dietitians polled for the latest What’s Trending in Nutrition survey identified affordability and value as a top driver of food and beverage purchase decisions in 2021.

However, with COVID-19 vaccines now rolling out nationwide prompting a glimmer of hope for many Americans, optimism for the short term improved somewhat: In December, 29% of consumers told Conference Board pollsters they expect business conditions will improve in the next six months, up from 26.5% who said so in November.

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