Alternative Snacks Are Up and Down

The category presents a mix of trends, but meal replacement continues to be big.

April 25, 2023

By Sara Counihan

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—The alternative snacks category was on the rebound in convenience stores throughout 2021 and most of 2022 after a dramatic sales slip in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the question is whether the category can continue to attract the inflation-weary consumer.

Although a small category, representing 1.55% of in-store sales in 2021, alternative snacks sales were up 23.3% from 2020 to 2021 according to the NACS State of the Industry (SOI) Report of 2021 Data. During the first three quarters of 2022, alternative snacks sales surpassed 2021 sales during all but two months, per CSX data.

“These positive sales numbers mean the category continues to see momentum” said Jayme Gough, NACS research manager. “But on the flip side, inflation has impacted many in-store categories, including alternative snacks center-store categories.”

The average unit price for the category was up 7.9% from 2021 to 2022, NielsenIQ data show, and while sales were up 3.8%, units were down 3.8%.

“These figures tell us that although there are sales dollars coming in, c-stores aren’t actually selling more product,” said Gough.

At Nashville-based MAPCO, the category is steady, but “not what it was two years ago or before when we were seeing really big growth within [the category],” said Kelley Gutierrez, senior category manager, candy and snacks, MAPCO.

“In order for us to keep [customers], we’ve got to be creative with how we’re promoting because people are taking a second look at everything they’re spending on,” she said.


The majority of sales in the category come from the meat snacks subcategory. This was true again in 2021. Meat snacks represented 57.2% of category sales and boasted the second-largest gross margin for all subcategories, 45.60% (NACS SOI Report of 2021 Data).

A leader in meat snacks, Jack Link’s is seeing a shift in consumer purchasing habits.

“Two years ago, we saw a boom in large value bags when consumers were staying close to home with more expendable income,” said Jennifer Martin, senior category manager, convenience, Jack Link’s. “That trend has slowed down in the c-store channel.”

Martin said consumers are now gravitating toward smaller-sized jerky bags (between 2 and 4 ounces). Meat sticks have also grown in overall dollar share with single sticks contributing to that growth, but bagged sticks have slowed.

Gutierrez said at MAPCO, meat snacks sales have slipped during the past year, especially the larger pack sizes; however, meat sticks are performing well. Gutierrez attributes the success to offering a variety of different brands and flavors and aggressively promoting them.

“There are definitely opportunities within cross promotion for that value proposition,” she said, pointing to the example of running a promotion on a bag of jerky or a meat stick and a packaged beverage. “That kind of a [promotional] trend isn’t going to go away, especially as dollars start to tighten and people might be using c-stores for meal replacements,” Gutierrez said.

With rising food costs, it could be cheaper for a customer to purchase a high-protein meat snack and a packaged beverage at a c-store than to buy a fast-food meal, she noted. “The biggest promotional proposition that I work with is what can I do to give somebody an option who would otherwise walk out without anything?” Gutierrez said.

Read the rest of this month’s Category Close-Up “Looking at the Alternative” in the digital issue of NACS Magazine.

Sara Counihan is contributing editor of NACS Magazine and NACS Daily. She can be reached at