Katie Martin / The Atlantic

For most Americans, meat sticks have one face: Macho Man Randy Savage. The pro wrestler fronted the Slim Jim brand for much of the 1990s, flipping tables and crashing through ceilings in television commercials to implore young men to snap into dried sausage rods. Over several decades of marketing, Slim Jim had fine-tuned itself for a certain type of bro: one who delighted in the purposefully trashy masculinity embodied by WWF icons in neon-fringed leather and the mystery-meat gas-station snacks they love. The processed protein cylinders long dominated the meat-snack market, netting hundreds of millions of dollars in sales in the ’90s for the packaged-foods behemoth Conagra.

As the new millennium dawned, however, American tastes and the whims of pop culture started to shift. People began to worry about processed foods and search for different flavors and ingredients in their snacks. Savage’s tenure with Slim Jim ended, and the brand launched new campaigns—most notably, a series of late-2000s ads in which a man dressed as a meat stick implored people to eat him. Slim Jim even temporarily changed its slogan from “Snap into a Slim Jim” to “Made from stuff guys need.” But growing up is hard. By late 2010, sales of the sticks had dipped, and even as they rebounded in the years afterward, executives fretted over teenage boys aging out of their products.

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.

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.

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.”

Along with Rashid Ali, a fellow Florida-based CrossFitter, Maldonado founded the meat-stick brand Chomps. Its products are free of sugar and nitrates, which are common in conventional shelf-stabilized meat and verboten for many dieters. At first, Maldonado says, he and Ali expected to run Chomps as a side business while they worked day jobs. Things cruised along manageably for the first few years, as the company, like a lot of modern health-food brands, marketed itself directly to paleo and Whole30 adherents online. Then Uncrate, a popular website for men’s lifestyle recommendations, wrote an article about the Chomps sticks. “We got thousands and thousands of orders,” Maldonado says. “We realized that, wow, this isn’t a niche product. This is as general as it gets.”

In 2016, Chomps got picked up by its first retail client, Trader Joe’s, and the company brought in $4 million in revenue. In 2020, Maldonado says, it is on pace to surpass $60 million in sales. Its clientele is mostly women in households that make more than $80,000 per year—exactly the people gas-station treats were never trying to attract, and people who might not want to bring a fistful of neon-encased meat whips to the office.

Chomps is far from alone in its growth. Hershey bought the jerky upstart Krave in 2015 for more than $200 million, and food companies such as Chef’s Cut, Country Archer, and Stryve have also found a booming market for their sticks. As a genre, meat snacks—sticks, nuggets, jerky, and beyond—are expected by one industry analysis to become a $6 billion market in the United States by 2027. Much of those sales will continue to go to big brands like Slim Jim (whose parent company, Conagra, did not respond to a request for comment), but smaller companies can thrive in what the snack industry refers to as the “better for you” market, which traffics in “healthy” updates to old favorites. “The first thing consumers are going to look at might be the nutrition-facts label, but if it’s not that, it’s the ingredient list,” says David Walsh, a vice president of the industry trade group SNAC International. “The fewer the ingredients the better, and they want to understand all the ingredients as well.”

This intense interest in ingredients isn’t just the result of changing ideas about health. Ideas are changing about snacks themselves. “Consumers are replacing meals with snacks, especially during the workday when they might not have time to run and grab a full meal,” says Chelsie Rae Lee, the chief revenue officer at SnackNation, a subscription service that delivers boxes full of miscellaneous snack foods to American companies (including The Atlantic). Indeed, Americans eat fewer traditional sit-down meals than previous generations did, so they need different kinds of snacks to take their place. Lee says that SnackNation’s meat sticks are so popular that the company launched what it’s calling the Marvelous Meat Lover’s Box, for offices that want to load up on protein.

If you’ve read a lot about the popularity of plant-based proteins like Beyond Meat or the Impossible Burger, or about the growing anxiety over what America’s generous per capita meat consumption is doing to the planet or people’s bodies, it might seem counterintuitive that people intensely focused on their physical well-being and the provenance of their food would be fueling an explosion in bulk boxes of dried sausage. But an interest in fancy meat alternatives and in fancy portable meats are two sides of the same coin. Along with faux-burger technology, sales rates for protein-packed snacks made with chickpeas and beans have soared in recent years, but the vast majority of people seeking out those foods don’t seem intent on giving up meat; the rate of vegetarianism in the United States has been steady for decades. Instead, many Americans with disposable income are primarily concerned with making better, more informed choices about what they ingest. Someone who forgoes meat at dinnertime might also be someone who fishes a teriyaki-flavored free-range-turkey stick out of her purse for a mid-morning snack.

By selling directly to consumers, small brands prepared to meet the baroque requirements of restrictive health regimens can build a following large enough to pry their way onto sought-after shelf space at major grocers. For most newer meat-stick brands, that means not just a limited ingredient list, but a good backstory of where their meat comes from and the life it lived. Maldonado was careful to emphasize that Chomps sources its beef, which comprises the trimmings from steaks and other retail cuts, from a sustainable, humane ranch in Tasmania. He found that American cattle were too mistreated.

Even going to Australia and back for its beef sticks hasn’t been enough for Chomps to banish the ghost of Macho Man Randy Savage, though. The company’s products may contain only ingredients you can easily identify, but it’s hard to out-brand a burly man in neon leather selling ultra-processed treats. “This happens every time. I’ll get this sideways look when I’m explaining I’m making meat sticks, and then people are like, ‘Oh, do you mean like a healthy …,’” Maldonado laments. “And I’m like, ‘Yes, like a healthy Slim Jim.’”

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