Most of us grew up thinking of beef jerky as a junk food. But over the past few years, beef jerky has been rebranded as a healthy snack.
Is it too good to be true? Does beef jerky actually have health benefits? Are even the “cleaned up” versions of beef jerky all that good for you?
Let’s take a look.
First of All, How Exactly Is Beef Jerky Made?
Beef jerky was first developed by South American natives about 500 years ago. Back then it was health jerky (not like the jerky you get now at the gas station). The first jerky was made with buffalo meat, which was dried and then added to clumps of dried fruit or animal fat.
These days, jerky is made with a variety of meats including beef, turkey, duck, and even the original buffalo. Strips of meat are marinated in a salt solution, hung out to dry and then cooked for as long as five hours. A lot of today’s jerky is packed with artificial flavoring and crazy amounts of sodium. Which begs the questions:
Is Beef Jerky Healthy?
Older, junkier versions of beef jerky were packed with nitrates, which are known to increase your risk of heart disease, harden your arteries, and increase your chances of developing diabetes.
Junk food versions of beef jerky also often contained MSG (monosodium glutamate), which has been linked to various health issues, including headaches, heart palpitations, and nausea.
Ditching these additives is helpful. But even “healthy” versions of beef jerky may be problematic. Let’s examine the nutritional value of beef jerky, according to the USDA.
A 1-ounce serving of beef jerky contains:
3 grams of saturated fat, which should be limited because of links to heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
2.5 grams of sugar, although this can vary widely from brand to brand. While 2.5 grams of sugar may not sound like a lot, it’s recommended that sugar consumption be limited to 25-37 grams per day.
More than 22% of your recommended daily sodium intake (about 506 milligrams). Studies show that 9 in 10 Americans consume too much sodium, and eating foods with high sodium content is correlated with high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Is Healthy Jerky a Thing?
When eaten in moderation, beef jerky can be a healthy and convenient way to get your low-carb, high-protein fix.
- One serving contains 9 grams of protein.
- Beef jerky is packed with healthy minerals such as iron, zinc, and magnesium.
- Beef jerky products do contain higher than desirable amounts of saturated fats, but most newer versions of beef jerky are low-fat, compared to other beef products.
- “Cleaner” beef jerky contains less sugar than the older, junkier brands.
- Many brands offer beef jerky products containing organic, grass-fed beef.
Note: Even with organic standards in place, it’s nearly impossible to manufacture meat produced with environmentally-friendly standards, which is one of the reasons Public Goods discontinued its beef jerky sales.
What Type Of Beef Jerky Should I Eat?
If you are in the market for a healthy brand of beef jerky, here’s a “cheat sheet”:
What To Look For
- Organic beef: minimal processing, grass-fed, organic certification
- Simple ingredients: beef, sugar, water, salt, etc.
What To Avoid
- Processed beef
- Unhealthy ingredients: nitrates, MSG, artificial preservatives
- Excessive sugar (6 grams or more) or sodium (more than 350 milligrams)
- Low-fat content (3 grams or less)
Are There Alternatives To Beef Jerky?
Still unsure about beef jerky? If you’re looking for a low-carb, high-protein snack that will keep you chugging for a couple of hours, you’ve got options.
- Protein bars (watch for high sugar content)
- Trail mix
- Hard boiled eggs (cholesterol is a concern, but everything in moderation)
Once you find a healthy brand of beef jerky you love, enjoy it … in moderation, of course.
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