Who would have guessed? Beef jerky is going upscale.

Driven by the growing trend of healthy snacks, meat snack makers are rolling out products with innovative flavors and all-natural options targeted at health-conscious consumers looking for nourishing protein.

And the food industry has taken notice.

General Mills, Inc. this year purchased Epic Provisions, a maker of products ranging from jerky bites to trail mix, while The Hershey Co. last year acquired Krave, a manufacturer of specialty meat snacks.

The acquisitions come amid growing popularity of jerky. Meat snack consumption climbed 18 percent from 2008 to 2015, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm. Dollar sales of jerky rose 2.83 percent in the year-ended March 20, 2016, according to IRI, a Chicago-based research firm.

And companies are increasingly using sponsorship to promote the products. Case in point: Hershey included Krave as part of its new five-year partnership with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Dollar sales of Krave soared 44 percent in the year-ended March 20, according to IRI.

Other recent deals focus on the category’s traditional audience: young adult men. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely than any other age group to graze on snacks, according to NPD. Men eat far more meat snacks than women, although women are increasing consumption of protein-packed treats.

Ties include Oberto and Nitro Circus, Jack Link’s and the Red Bull Crashed Ice Competition in St. Louis, and Perky Jerky and Aspen Snowmass.

Jerky makers use sponsorship to accomplish the following objectives:

  • Access sampling rights
  • Gain sales rights
  • Access digital content
  • Support brand positioning
  • Gain IP for retail promotions

The Ten Largest Brands In The Jerky Category
The Ten Largest Brands In The Jerky Category
Sales in supermarkets, drug stores, mass market retailers, gas/C-stores; military commissaries and select club and dollar stores in the 52-weeks ending March 20, 2016.