The Native American Snack Behind the Meaty-Treat Boom

Food History

In the last five years, meat bars have exploded onto the snack scene. In 2014, Americans spent $2.5 billion on meat snacks, up 67 percent from 2009. There's Epic Bar, the Austin-based company recently purchased by General Mills; Organic Prairie's Mighty Bar; the Brooklyn-based Bricks Bar; Omnibar, the brainchild of a Montana rancher and a professor of Health and Human Performance; and more. These treats are finding fans among the Paleo, clean-living crowd. And most draw inspiration from a Native American snack called a pemmican.

Centuries ago, Native Americans would mix handfuls of meat (often from a buffalo or deer) with ground berry powder and animal fat before long journeys. The fruit would effectively preserve the meat, keeping things fresh. And since buffalo and venison are low in fat but high in protein, the snack packed a punch, sustaining travelers over hundreds of miles.

They had, in other words, invented one of America's first energy bars.

These historic roots make pemmican particularly appealing to Paleo adherents. But that's not the only reason they look to Native cuisine for inspiration. "Native American food is extremely healthy," says Sean Sherman, a Native American chef. And it shares a lot of similarities with the Paleo diet, including an emphasis on lean protein, vegetables, and other low-glycemic foods. "Stuff," Sherman says, "that doesn't just turn into a bunch of trash and weigh you down."

Many tribe cooks also eschew processed ingredients, and even farmed meats like chicken or pork. Some also emphasize pre-modern cooking techniques like smoking, drying, or stewing.

The Modern Meat Bar

The pemmican was one of the things Thomas Finnigan looked at when developing the Bricks Bar.

"I wanted to be Paleo, but I couldn't do it on the road," he explains. "You can't just throw a steak in your bag and then eat it on the go."

So he decided to see what he could make on his own, using the pemmican as one guide. "We really wanted that nutrient-dense aspect in our bar," he says. "We wanted to use real animal protein; stuff that's organic and grass-fed."

But he didn't mimic a pemmican exactly. Instead, he tweaked the recipe to include vegetables and spices. Those changes, he says, make the bar taste a little more clean and "modern."

Epic, created by Taylor Collins and his partner Katie Forrest, has a similar origin story: Collins and Forrest are endurance athletes. A couple of years ago, they switched from vegan eating to a Paleo diet. At first, it was an adjustment and they struggled to fuel their long workouts with protein-rich treats. Eventually, they started making their own snacks, drawing inspiration from “the eating habits of our ancestors.”

The result — the Epic bar — has been a hit. Like Brick bars, though, Epic isn’t an exact replica of the Native American recipe.

A Native American Success Story

If you truly want to sample the Native American nosh, you'll have to buy the Tanka bar, developed by two members of the Lakota Tribe in 2007. "We took the best of [wasna, the Lakota version of a pemmican], effectively the best snack food ever made, and modernized it," says founder Mark Tilsen.

To develop the recipe, Tilsen and co-founder Karlene Hunter interviewed tribe elders about their family recipes. Once they had an idea of what to include, they began experimenting. Eventually, they came up with a method that involved slow cooking buffalo for nine hours.

Tilsen is happy that other companies have drawn inspiration from the pemmican. But he bristles at the notion that what they're doing is really grounded in historic tradition.

"There are a whole lot of copy-cats," Tilden says, pointing to companies which market their own energy bars with words like, "ancestral" or "tribe." "It's part of a more general culture of cultural exploitation," he says. "One of the sad realities about American history is that it's never been illegal to exploit or steal from Indian people."

Tilsen and his partners have worked to make sure the Tanka bar serves the Native community in several ways. For example, it’s produced on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The brand is sold in more than 8,000 stores, making it the first break-out food created on a reservation. This has brought much-needed jobs to the area, where three-quarters of the residents are unemployed.

The bars are also healthy, with just 70 calories per unit. Tilsen sees this as a way to address a health crisis in the Native American community. About a third of Native Americans are obese; many struggle with diabetes.

“We designed a good, healthy product that fits into what's now called the modern Paleo diet,” Tilsen says. “What we're learning as we go is that what people are really looking for is real food.”

(Image credits: Sara Kate Gillingham; Courtesy of Bricks Bars)