Beef jerky is snack-sized seasoned and dried meat. It provides protein, zinc, and other minerals and nutrients that are key for overall health.
While it’s a filling on-the-go option, beef jerky is also typically high in sodium. It is considered a processed red meat, which can have some health drawbacks. Because of this, some people may want to limit eating it frequently or be mindful of portion sizes and preparation.
This article provides an overview of the nutritional benefits of beef jerky, offering information on an ideal serving size and who should avoid it.
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Beef Jerky Snacking: Healthy or Not?
Foods that are low in carbohydrates, high in protein, and rich in essential minerals are considered by some nutritionists to be suitable snack and dietary choices. Beef jerky’s nutritional profile fits this description. But this snack is also heavy on some not-so-helpful minerals, which is not ideal when it comes to certain health conditions and risks.
A big plus for beef jerky is that it’s full of protein, with a 1-ounce serving of jerky fulfilling almost 10% of most healthy adults’ daily protein benchmark.
Protein helps the body repair and develop cells that keep your muscles, bones, and other organs healthy. The body can’t produce certain essential amino acids (building blocks of protein), so it must get them from the diet. Protein from animal sources (such as beef) and soy contains all nine essential amino acids.
The amount of the essential mineral zinc in beef jerky is a bonus. Zinc helps support the immune system and energy levels. The body tends to absorb it well from animal sources like beef jerky.
Beef jerky is also a good source of iron. Iron is needed to produce hemoglobin, that protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Because of this, beef jerky can be a particularly beneficial snack for people concerned about iron deficiency.
A notable downside is that beef jerky can be high in sodium (salt). Most adults in the United States consume too much salt. For example, a standard 1-ounce serving size of beef jerky contains 505 milligrams (mg) of sodium, which is roughly 20% of the daily recommended sodium intake for most healthy adults.
Too much sodium can lead to water retention—causing bloating, weight gain, and potentially a risk for other health conditions like high blood pressure, osteoporosis (progressive bone thinning), kidney stones, and an enlarged heart.
Beef jerky is a form of processed red meat. Some research has suggested a link between consuming this type of meat and the risk for chronic diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Other evidence shows that red meat can trigger high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) and may be better replaced with plant-based protein options.
What Are Better Choices for Beef Jerky?
The type of beef jerky you choose often depends on nutritional and flavor preferences. But you may also consider these factors:
Low-sodium beef jerky is available commercially. Look for jerky with less than 140 mg per ounce. Check the serving size to ensure this is met. Low-sodium jerky recipes and packaged cures are also available. Be sure to follow directions strictly for food safety.
Some types of beef jerky are naturally fermented. They are marinated in a live culture of “good” acid-producing bacteria rather than using encapsulated citric acid or lactic acid to increase meat acidity and inhibit growth of unwanted bacteria. Fermentation can add flavor to the jerky.
Terminology can also help you determine whether there may be binders or extenders added. Products labeled “beef jerky” are produced from a single strip of beef and don’t contain binders or extenders. “Beef jerky chunked and formed,” “beef jerky ground and formed,” or “beef jerky chopped and formed” are molded and formed before being cut into strips and may contain binders or extenders.
How Beef Jerky Is Made
Beef jerky is prepared by dehydrating (drying out) lean cuts of meat. It can be store-bought or made at home.
Commercially prepared beef jerky is produced through a variety of processes and may be cured, smoked, and air- or oven-dried. It may be produced from a single piece of beef or formed from chunks or from ground beef and then sliced into strips. The facilities are federally inspected to ensure safety.
Making beef jerky at home brings with it some risks of not ensuring bacteria are killed, which could lead to illness from Salmonella or Escherichia coli (E. coli). Drying the strips in a food dehydrator (typically at 130 to 140 degrees F) does not adequately kill these bacteria. The meat must be heated to 160 degrees F (preferably before drying) to ensure it is safe.
Methods for making beef jerky at home include marinating (preferably in the refrigerator), heating meat strips to 160 degrees F, then drying them. Different types of seasonings can be used. It is less safe to dry the meat strips first and then heat them in an oven to 160 degrees F, as this is not as effective at killing the bacteria.
Homemade beef jerky should be packaged properly and stored in a cool, dry location for up to one to two months. Commercially produced beef jerky is stable for up to a year at proper storage conditions.
In addition, jerky can be made from other sources, like turkey, chicken, venison, bison, and more.
Should Anyone Not Eat Beef Jerky?
Most adults in the United States consume too much sodium, but an occasional beef jerky snack is usually not harmful.
That said, there are some people who might consider avoiding beef jerky because of the sodium, including:
People who are pregnant should check with a healthcare provider before eating beef jerky due to the health risks associated with high sodium consumption and the potential for infection from E. coli and other bacteria.
In addition, because some store-bought beef jerky may contain added ingredients, anyone who has an allergy to meat, soy, or gluten should check the ingredient labels before consuming jerky.
Sodium Nitrates in Beef Jerky
Beef jerky is also typically high in sodium nitrates. These compounds are often added to processed foods to help preserve them and give them a salty flavor.
Research has shown that consuming these additives may lead to a risk of developing high blood pressure and some types of cancer. However, other environmental and genetic factors are also likely to be at play.
Because of this, most experts recommend limiting eating processed foods like beef jerky, hot dogs, and lunch meats.
Beef Jerky Serving Size
A standard serving size of beef jerky may be 1 ounce (28 grams). This is about 100 calories per serving.
While this snack may be beneficial for its high nutrient content, it’s still a good idea to consume beef jerky in moderation whenever possible. Nutritionists and experts generally recommend foods that are whole and not processed to meet dietary needs for protein, zinc, iron, and other essential nutrients.
Beef jerky is a savory, protein-rich and low-carb snack that’s full of other essential minerals and is nutritious in moderation. But because it’s a processed meat with a high sodium content, it may not be the best choice for frequent snacking for some people. Check with a healthcare provider before consuming beef jerky if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, a meat allergy, or are pregnant.