Is Beef Jerky a Healthy Snack?

Thanks to decades of effective advertising campaigns, beef jerky tends to evoke certain mental imagery: stereotypically masculine men wearing flannel (the manliest of clothing), driving their big trucks to camping or hunting sites, ripping apart the thick, tough meat with their teeth.

beef jerky, grill

Brands such as Jack Link’s have emphasized some of the product’s qualities, including its portability, taste and the fact that it’s a filling meat that doesn’t need to be refrigerated. Beef jerky has been a staple in the military and space exploration because it is a source of protein that can survive harsh environments and last for weeks without spoiling.

It doesn’t exactly scream healthy.

Unfortunately this reputation is justified. The most recognizable brands of beef jerky pump their products full of unhealthy ingredients such as nitrates.

My friends and I used to think of beef jerky as the meat version of a cheap dessert. It was what we picked up at a gas station during a road trip. Often store managers would place the bags right next to Twinkies and Yodels.

I perceived the product as inherently bad for you. Like donuts, I thought there was no health value, only degrees of unhealthiness.

It seems like other men from my generation had a similar perception.

“My first memories of jerky are of Slim Jims (not the round meat sticks, they actually made flat jerky strips), so I wasn’t exactly starting with a quality product,” said Miles, who recently tested brands of beef jerky as part of a food product development effort.

That’s why I was surprised to learn that beef jerky can be a healthy snack, and that an increasing number of brands are marketing it as part of a healthy diet. After all, it is an excellent source of protein, as well as minerals such as iron and zinc. Like other types of meat, it’s all about the ingredients and how the product is made.

If you are in the market for a healthy brand of beef jerky, here’s what to look for and what to avoid:

What to Look For

  • Organic beef: minimal processing, grass-fed, organic certification
  • Simple ingredients: beef, sugar, water, salt, etc., not too much that sounds like something from a chemistry class

What to Avoid

  • Processed beef
  • Unhealthy ingredients: nitrates, artificial preservatives
  • Excessive sugar (6 grams or more) or sodium (more than 350 milligrams)

Why Beef Jerky As a Healthy Snack Is Becoming More Popular

Beef jerky ads often imply that enjoying the good is like biting into a little piece of America. It’s true that beef jerky is one of those classic American staples, but not in the way you might think.

Many centuries ago Native Americans developed beef jerky by drying strips of meat and adding them to pieces of crushed dried fruit or animal fat. Today’s healthy version of beef jerky is more similar to its natural roots, not the processed junk in gas stations.

It is possible that healthy brands of beef jerky have experienced a recent boon because of how they align with popular dieting, exercise and lifestyle trends. The paleo and ketogenic diets suggest eating foods that are rich in protein, low in carbs and high in fat. Beef jerky is a lean meat that meets these requirements. It seems to be a favorite among bodybuilders and other frequent gym users who need to quickly ingest large amounts of protein.

Personal trainer Chris Clyde said, “I definitely think beef jerky can be considered and utilized as a healthy snack.” While traveling Clyde likes to bring a healthy brand of jerky as a convenient protein source.

If you want a healthy snack that will quickly fill you up when you’re short on time or need something on the go, try a brand of beef jerky that has a simple list of ingredients and minimal processing. It’s OK if you don’t have a truck or aren’t into outdoor adventures.

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