CHICAGO — Despite increased communications about the health and sustainable benefits of vegetarian diets and plant proteins, Americans are eating more meat than ever. Per capita meat consumption in the United States grew 5% from 2014 to 2015, the largest increase in the past four decades, according to data from the research and advisory firm Rabobank, New York. The average American now eats about 193 lbs of beef, pork and chicken a year, which equates to more than 3.7 lbs per week. Much of the consumption increase may be in such unique snacking forms as charcuterie, jerky and refrigerated meat medleys.

“Snacking is no longer an afterthought,” said Megan Huddleston, director of marketing for Hillshire Snacking, a brand of Tyson Foods Inc., Springdale, Ark. “It’s an opportunity to go on a 15-minute culinary adventure, and Hillshire Snacking products set a new bar with interesting flavor pairings and quality ingredients you’d never expect from a packaged snack.”

Introduced in early 2016, the Hillshire Snacking product line includes an array of individually portioned protein snacks for an elevated on-the-go eating experience to satisfy a more sophisticated food palate. The line includes Hillshire Snacking Small Plates and Hillshire Snacking Grilled Chicken Bites, with each offering containing 15 or more grams of protein per serving. The plates are combinations of meat (salami slices, spicy pork chunks or grilled chicken chunks), cheese, crackers, crisps and nuts. The bites are chicken breast bites with dipping sauce.

The product developers at Gourmet Boutique, Jamaica, N.Y., developed a commercial process to cook chicken breasts on an open-flame grill, which provides an authentic grilled look and taste. Some suppliers of pre-cooked chicken will steam or poach the chicken and then run it through a branding cylinder to create grill marks. The products tend to have a washed out, soggy-looking appearance from the high-moisture cooking. They also don’t have real grill flavor. When it comes to snacking meats, appearance and flavor are paramount.

Gourmet Boutique chicken cubes
Gourmet Boutique cooks chicken breasts on an open-flame grill to produce a sensory-appealing fully cooked meat, which is now available cubed in single-serve snack packs.

“With our process, the chicken juice drippings fall onto the flames, producing aromas that are absorbed into the product,” said Jere Dudley, vice-president of sales at Gourmet Boutique. “There are numerous and complex chemical reactions that take place between the proteins and sugars in the chicken, and these only occur during grilling at high heat, which also produces a golden color and true grill marks.”

The chicken breasts are now getting cubed and sold in convenient 3-oz snack packs. They may be consumed cold, right out of the pack, or warmed and used as a salad topper. Each pack contains 110 calories, 22 grams of protein and no carbohydrates.

Chicago-based Kraft Heinz Co. recognizes that the refrigerated meat snack category may be much more than Lunchables. The company is growing its P3 (portable protein pack) line with Grilled Snackers. The two compartment tray contains meat and a dipping sauce. Combinations are hickory seasoned grilled chicken breast strips with either sweet barbecue or lite ranch, and teriyaki seasoned grilled chicken breast strips with Asian toasted sesame.

As snacking becomes the norm for daily refueling, expect to see more sophisticated, premium mini meals in supermarkets and convenience stores across the country.