Dehydrated foods are nothing new. From instant coffee to powdered milk, dry foods play an important role in our food system. And if you’ve ever eaten a box of raisins, a slice of fruit leather, or a packet of seaweed, you’ve had a dehydrated snack. Why, then, is there such a growing movement of shelf-stable dried snacks claiming to be saving the planet with their practices?
As someone who founded a dehydrated food brand, I’m no stranger to the benefits of dehydrated foods, which range from extended shelf life to concentrated flavors. But I’ve been surprised by how many new brands are leveraging the claim. As we continue to see the impact of our climate-destroying choices, it’s natural that shifting focus to foods that involve a reduced need for resources is growing in popularity. There is even a diet-based identity called climatarianism, in which followers aim to choose foods with as minimal carbon emissions as possible.
I wanted to know if these dehydrated snack manufacturers are really on to something or if they’re just playing up the obvious fact that dried foods weigh less and, in turn, require less fuel to be shipped. So, I did some research and spoke with the co-founder and CEO of the mushroom jerky brand Eat the Change, Seth Goldman. Ahead, discover what I learned.
The Water Factor
It shouldn’t be dismissed the reduced water content of dried foods alone makes them more sustainable than many other snacks. By removing water from an ingredient, you make it much lighter in weight. That means when you transport it, fewer resources are needed, and in turn, the carbon footprint is lower. The food is lighter, for one, but it takes up less space, too. Because of that, you can ship much more of something in the same amount of space than you could with a fresh equivalent. However, there are additional reasons why dehydrated foods may be a better and more sustainable snacking choice.
More Accessible Pricing
When it comes to grass-fed beef, "cheap" is not the first world to roll off anyone’s lips. Grass-fed animals require more land to graze on because they aren’t fed grain and receive fewer antibiotics. In turn, their meat is more sustainable, as well as healthier, offering more vital nutrients like omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid than grain-fed cows can. To buy a grass-fed steak, you can expect to shell out anywhere from ten to thirty dollars at the grocery store, depending on the cut you choose.
By drying grass-fed beef and packaging it in small, shelf-stable bags, the health benefits of this nutrient-dense meat can be had at a fraction of the cost. Though jerkies are still costly when broken down by the pound, they’re available in smaller increments than fresh meat could ever be and dried in a manner that makes them satisfying with a smaller serving. Prevail Jerky says that even though their jerkies are free of preservatives, they "can be stored outside the fridge for months and even a year without it going bad as long as it’s in a sealed package."
These small and moderately priced snacks, which are plenty big on flavor and protein, are also conveniently portable. For example, Werner Jerky makes a line of meat sticks out of their grass-fed beef that, at about six dollars for a five-ounce package, is easy to take anywhere.
Grass-fed beef has a wide range of health benefits, but not everyone eats meat. The rise in plant-based dehydrated snacks is aligned with the increased popularity in meat analogs, vegan restaurants, and produce-centric meal delivery kits.
Keho savory snack bars, which are filled with vegetables and are simultaneously gluten-free, vegan, and keto, give consumers who want a change from sweet protein bars a more meal-like alternative without any added sweeteners. They’re an easy way to get your vegetable needs satisfied on the go and may be more satiating than a granola bar due to their more complex taste.
Supernola, who makes oat-free superfood clusters, packs their snacks with antioxidants and adaptogens, using ingredients like sprouted nuts, goji berries, and raw cacao. They also donate a portion of Supernola’s proceeds to Girls on the Run, a volunteer-based program that builds social, physical, and emotional skills for 3rd to 8th graders. At less than three dollars a serving, their bites are a healthful and socially conscious alternative to granola bars.
Eat The Change, which makes mushroom jerkies, has turned sustainable snacking into a particularly delicious cause. I was blown away by the richness and meaty quality of their plant-based jerkies, which I found far more appealing than any soy or seitan ones I’ve tried. "Mushrooms serve as an incredible blank canvas, with the ability to welcome all flavors and textures," Goldman tells me of their choice to use mushrooms as a base for jerky. "Our marinated and hickory wood smoked mushroom jerky is made with organic portobello and crimini mushrooms, one of the most sustainably grown crops." He notes that there are numerous reasons why mushrooms are sustainable, such as the fact their growth medium is food waste, they can be vertically grown (10 layers in one building), and there is very little water wasted in their cultivation.
Food Waste Reduction
It wasn’t until the debut of brands like Imperfect Foods that many people became aware of how much food is grown then never eaten. Grocery stores sell only the produce items that are the most visually appealing, and the rest is left for processing. However, there are still leftover items that don't get used.
"The biggest environmental footprint of food is food waste," Goldman says. "The estimates are that roughly 20-30% of all food grown goes to waste, which means all the water, land, and resources used to grow produce is wasted." Brands like Eat The Change are reducing food waste by extending the shelf life of produce as dehydrating foods prolong their shelf life from one to two weeks to 12 months. He also notes that by choosing to use smoking as a natural preservative (a technique that dates back to the paleolithic era), their products don’t require any chemical preservatives.
Additionally, snack foods like fruit leather and jerky taste just as good when made with less pretty produce that would otherwise be discarded. Goldman says that their mushroom jerky is made with "perfectly imperfect mushrooms," including oversized and usually discarded stems because they are delicious and just as nutritious—an act that also reduces food waste. The result of those mushrooms being combined with wood smoking provides "the perfect texture for a meat alternative" that is nutrient-rich as well as incredibly sustainable.
A combination of factors makes dehydrated snacks a sustainable option that, if adopted by more consumers, can have a positive impact on the future of food sustainability. Between the lighter and smaller nature of dried foods, how they increase the accessibility of costly ingredients, and how much they minimize food waste, dehydrated snacks are a sound choice environmentally. Not to mention, they can be as tasty and nutritious as other snacks, if not more so.
Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, Nader GA, Larson S. A Review of Fatty Acid Profiles and Antioxidant Content in Grass-fed and Grain-fed Beef. Nutr J. 2010;9:10. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10