As small business owners and farmers, we are constantly navigating the landscape of choices. Choices are grown out of our individual values and we carry those values into the kind of products we want to create and the kind of company we want to build. There are a lot of tough choices one has to make, but with a solid foundation of good values, they are easy choices.
Our journey to creating Roam Sticks has had a lot of pivots and tough choices. Here’s a story of one particular turning point and choice that we don’t talk about very much.
In 2016 when we were still farming in Missouri, we decided that we wanted to make a pasture-raised pork stick. (There were lots of grassfed beef sticks on the market, but no pasture-raised pork sticks.) Luckily, we were close to a USDA approved facility that already made snack sticks for large national brands. It seemed like an obvious choice, and we started making Roam Sticks with this manufacturer. It wasn’t until we were already producing there that we learned more about how the snack sticks are made. The facility we were working with was fair, efficient and their products were consistent. However, there were some things that bothered us. After we had started production, we realized that they used liquid smoke flavor, rather than real wood smoke. It turns out that the USDA considers it an “industry standard” so “liquid smoke” doesn’t have to be listed anywhere on the ingredient deck.
At the same time, we also discovered that the snack sticks contained an ingredient that uses partially hydrogenated oils to help make the sticks shelf stable. Partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats. This is concerning, because according to the Cleveland Clinic: “There are currently no safe levels of trans fat to consume each day, so try to keep your daily intake as low as possible.” So even though the sticks had trans fats, it didn’t appear on the nutrient deck. It turns out that it is not required if there are less than .5 grams per serving.
Another ingredient in question is called “encapsulated citric acid ”, but can also legally just be listed as “citric acid” on the list of ingredients. While it sounds like a benign citrus product, there is no citrus in it. The citric acid used in snack sticks is usually made from corn, but also can be made from sugar or wheat.
In a nutshell, the “encapsulate” is a partially hydrogenated oil, usually either palm or cottonseed, that is used as coating to cover the citric acid. When the meat is cooked, the oil melts at just the right time for the citric acid to be released. The acid then lowers the pH of the meat, which makes it inhospitable to pathogens. If you want to make a shelf stable meat product, you have to get the pH of the meat reduced so that it is both safe and shelf stable. The only other way to do this is to use a natural fermentation, which takes longer, but creates a safe product with more gut friendly benefits.
So here we were. We had put time into developing a recipe and creating a product. The team manufacturing the sticks was fast, affordable and consistently reliable. Most of our customers would probably never realize that “smoke” meant liquid smoke, or that encapsulated citric acid contained corn and trans fats. Changing to a facility that used natural fermentation and real wood smoke was going to mean starting all over again. It also meant our costs would go up.
I vividly remember standing in our home office, and talking with John about what to do. It was one of those situations where you could easily say, “Everyone else is doing it. It’s not that bad. It’s probably ok.” However, I had to ask myself, “how would I feel about feeding it to my own kids?” The answer was, not good. I didn’t want undesirable ingredients hidden in our snack sticks. We made a tough choice, we pulled Roam Sticks from that manufacturer and switched to a new facility that used natural fermentation and real hickory smoke to make our sticks both shelf stable and delicious.
Fast forward four years, and how do we feel about our decisions? Amazing. Roam Sticks are a healthy snack that we feel excited about sharing not only with our kids, but with all kids. We put our values first and chose products and processes that we deemed as better.
We aren’t the cheapest stick on the market, but our quality is second to none. Our sticks are made with 100% pasture-raised, non-GMO fed pork, which is far more costly than pork raised in 100% confinement with GMO feed. We grow the majority of the pork that goes into our products, and we care deeply about the food we produce. We matched the quality of our meat, with the quality of our processing so that our snacks sticks are healthy, delicious. The peace of mind that we are doing the best we can for both human health and the health of the environment makes it worth the journey.