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Jerky's back

Those tough meat products are opening avenues for anything to be jerky-ized, even ostrich and gator.

What's the hottest snack food in the country? Chips? Cookies? Chocolate bars? No, none of them. Thanks to Atkins and other high-protein diets, it's meat snacks. Think Slim Jim, Turkey Jerky, Texaco.

Sales of meat snacks last year increased more than any other nibble, shooting up a whopping 28.5 percent, according to a recently released report from the Snack Food Association. Pork rinds came in second, with an 18 percent increase in sales last year.

Some of this can be attributed to awareness generated by Dr. Atkins et al., but the meat snack industry has also been launching some high-profile ad campaigns and has gotten better at distribution, says Ann Wilkes, SFA spokeswoman. It has also been reaching out to target audiences by sponsoring country music festivals and extreme sports events.

Even poultry giant Tyson Foods is jumping into jerky, with Tyson dried sausage sticks currently in test markets. Meat snacks are coming in a range of new flavors, too: mesquite, teriyaki, nacho, Tabasco, pizza and Philadelphia cheese steak. And Shannon Wright, brand manager for Slim Jim, says she's seen just about every kind of meat or fish dried into jerky lately, including ostrich, salmon, tuna and alligator.

+ At the same time that muffins are mammoth and bagels have ballooned, chocolate-chip cookies are going mini.

Everybody, it seems, has a downsized version, including Pepperidge Farm, Famous Amos, Nabisco, Entemann's and Safeway.

"The bottom line is that little cookies are all about making the cookie category more snackable," says John Faulkner, spokesman for Pepperidge Farm, which makes Chocolate Chunk Minis.

Smaller cookies can compete with other one-handed snacks, a must for multitaskers and people on the go.

Mini Chips Ahoy! are for "hand-to-mouth snacking occasions," explains Nabisco spokeswoman Ann Smith.

"Perfect by the handful anytime and anywhere," says the box of Famous Amos mini cookies.

But size can be deceiving.

"People love tiny things, but they don't know when to stop," says Melanie Polk, director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

"For some reason, they feel a lot less guilty eating a lot of little cookies instead of a couple of regular-sized ones." You can do surprisingly more damage by the repeated handful.

Here's the math, using the serving size on each label of mini cookies as comparison points:

For approximately the same amount of calories and fat, you could have: Four mini Pepperidge Farm Chocolate Chunk Nantuckets or one big Nantucket; five Mini Chips Ahoy! or three regular ones; four mini Famous Amos chocolate chips or 1{ of the standard size; eight Entemann's Little Bites chocolate chips or five Original Recipe, and eight mini Safeway Treasure Chips or three of the original.

But after all these calculations, perhaps a better measure of portion size is how many fit in your hand as it reaches into the box, going once, going twice. . . .

+ Recently, we wrote about the Oklahoma entrepreneur and Oklahoma State University food engineer who teamed up to develop individually wrapped slices of peanut butter _ and who are working on sliced jelly.

Now there's more news from the PB&J front.

The J.M. Smucker Co. of Orrville, Ohio, is test-marketing Uncrustables, frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts removed.

The circular-shaped, white-bread sandwiches come four to a box, and thaw in 30 to 60 minutes. "They're perfect for a briefcase or kid's lunch box," says Smucker's spokeswoman Brenda Dempsey.

And in yet another attempt to simplify the seemingly simple, last September a Los Angeles company called Visionary Brands rolled out Peanut Squeeze _ peanut butter in an easy-to-squirt plastic bottle.

Unfortunately, Smucker's is no longer making squeezable jelly.