Five years later, I did a double take while walking through a Whole Foods in Brooklyn. Out of the corner of my eye, I had spotted a pile of narrow, long tubes in single-serving plastic shrink-wrap—Slim Jim packaging, but with the sophisticated shades of organic groceries instead of the garish colors of snacks fighting for attention in convenience stores. I stopped to marvel at the sticks, made by a company called Vermont Smoke & Cure, and to quietly scoff at their audacity. Who would buy a gentrified Slim Jim as health food?
The answer turned out to be a lot of people. Over the past decade, the gospel of meat and spice has not only endured, but flourished into a shelf-stable-beef extravaganza. Slim Jim’s sales have nearly tripled since their 2010 dip, and new companies have sprung up to offer organic, grass-fed, or minimal-ingredient protein batons virtually everywhere: corner stores, airport newsstands, office snack deliveries, the ads slotted between Instagram Stories. To put a meat snack in every hand, snack purveyors have pulled off a trick that might have seemed impossible in the days of the Macho Man: They transformed surplus beef into health food.
Read: The capitalist way to make Americans stop eating meat
Despite my initial incredulity at the thought of gourmet Slim Jims, curiosity won out. I started buying fancy meat sticks and jerky in airports—flying is stressful enough without a tummy full of chocolate and Cheez-Its. I’ve never had a meat stick that I’d regard as delicious, exactly, but plenty of them taste perfectly fine. They occasionally show up in my office’s snack stash, and they’re a better bridge to a delayed lunch than a tiny packet of organic animal crackers. They seem like no less reasonable a thing to have floating around at the bottom of my tote bag than a protein bar flavored like birthday cake.
To understand why dried sausage sticks are all the rage, you have to look past their most famous American purveyor and into the fitness-centric enclaves on Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram. There, carbohydrate-skeptical plans like the paleo diet, Whole30, and the ketogenic diet, often called “keto,” have found an audience of millions in the past decade—1.7 million people subscribe to the keto subreddit, and more than 4 million Instagram photos have been tagged with #whole30. These diets vary in their exact restrictions, but they all posit that Americans have been sold a bill of goods on “health food,” and that sugars, starches, and low-fat processed foods should mostly be abandoned in favor of minimally processed protein, fat, and vegetables. While the actual science behind these diets varies, they’ve helped mainstream concerns that are in fact supported by considerable evidence.
Read: The Keto diet’s most controversial champion
In 2012, Pete Maldonado was caught up in the first gusts of the internet’s low-carb whirlwind while exercising at a CrossFit gym. He began to dabble in paleo eating, which led him to a common realization for those who cut carbs: If you don’t have a full kitchen at your disposal and time to cook in it, avoiding them is basically impossible. Sugar shows up everywhere—even in conventional meat sticks and jerky, as a stabilizer—and particularly in the protein bars and powders marketed to people trying to build muscle. “There weren’t very many on-the-go convenient options, especially ones that were healthy,” Maldonado says. “They were candy bars for people who were into fitness.”