Jerky is an attractive snack for athletes.
For one, it's high in protein. But unlike other meat-based foods, jerky doesn't have to be refrigerated. That makes it a convenient and easy on-the-go snack. Combine that with the fact that jerky tastes pretty darn good, and it's not hard to see why it's so popular. But is it actually healthy? Or is jerky just another junk food that's unjustly earned a good reputation? STACK investigates.
Lean and Mean
Jerky is a simple food. It's defined as "meat that has been cut into long strips and dried." To make a basic jerky, all one needs is meat, salt and a low-temperature drying method. Jerky is naturally lean thanks to its low fat content. Since fat doesn't dry, most of it must be trimmed off before the drying process.
According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, jerky can be made from almost any lean meat, including beef, pork, venison or smoked turkey breast.
Since it's made from lean meat, jerky is always going to be high in protein. Protein is one of the most important nutrients for athletes. High-quality protein provides the amino acids that muscles need to repair and rebuild, allowing you to recover from exercise and get stronger over time. The body can also use protein as a source of energy.
The protein content of a one-ounce serving of Jack Links beef, chicken, turkey and pork jerky is 12 grams, 11 grams, 13 grams and 11 grams, respectively. So, there's little variation between jerky types in terms of protein content. The average serving of jerky is high in protein and low in fat—both pluses. Thanks to the fact that it's typically low in fat, jerky is also often low in calories. For example, the vast majority of KRAVE jerkies come in between 80-100 calories per serving.
All of that being said, there are some concerns regarding jerky's nutrition.
Perhaps the biggest one? Sodium content. Although sodium is an essential nutrient—your body needs it to survive—it's also incredibly easy to overindulge.
Studies show that 9 in 10 Americans consume too much sodium. Over-consuming sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and a wide range of other issues. Health officials estimate that if Americans lowered their daily sodium intake to the recommended range, it would prevent up to 92,000 deaths annually.
The recommended daily level of sodium intake is 1,500 mg—about what you find in 2/3 teaspoon of table salt. (Note: While many equate salt with sodium, sodium is in fact a component of salt. Table salt is about 40 percent sodium; the rest is chloride.)
Although athletes who work out at a high intensity for several hours a day can get away with eating more, people who work out only moderately (for an hour or less per day) typically don't sweat enough to warrant a high-sodium diet. According to estimates, the average American consumes 3,400 mg of sodium a day—more than twice the recommended amount.
Since jerky is cured with salt, even the basic varieties are fairly high in sodium. For example, a one-ounce serving of Oberto All Natural Original Beef Jerky contains 520 mg of sodium—equivalent to 22 percent of the daily recommended value. Additional seasonings can take the sodium content even higher. A one-ounce serving of Jack Links Cholula Hot Sauce Beef Jerky packs 690 mg of sodium. Since it's easy to wolf down two or three servings in a sitting, you could be consuming over 2,000 mg of sodium. Yikes!
Sugar can be an additional concern. Plain jerkies aren't high in sugar, but certain seasoned varieties are. If the name makes it sound like it has a sweet taste, you should peep the sugar content before snacking. KRAVE Pineapple Orange Beef Jerky contains 10 grams of sugar per serving, and their Grilled Sweet Teriyaki Pork Jerky contains a staggering 16 grams per serving. That extra sugar adds extra calories and has a serious negative impact on the food's overall nutritional profile.
Many worry that jerky contains additives such as sodium nitrate or MSG. People worry about sodium nitrate because it can form nitrosamines in the body, which have been found to be cancer-causing in certain animals. The amount of sodium nitrate in cured meats like jerky is not considered dangerous. The National Toxicology Program conducted a multi-year study in 2000, concluding that nitrate was safe at the levels used. Since then, the levels of nitrate used in meats has only gone down. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota stated that "nitrite as used in meat and meat products is considered safe because known benefits outweigh potential risks." Most brands of jerky don't even use sodium nitrite, so if it is a concern for you, you have plenty of options.
MSG refers to monosodium glutamate, a form of the naturally occurring chemical glutamate. It's used to help food taste more savory. MSG has been loosely associated with side effects like weight gain, but the research is far from conclusive. However, the majority of popular jerky brands no longer include MSG in their recipes.
In most cases, jerky is a great snack. It's low in fat and calories and packed with protein. It can help you recover faster, build more muscle and feel fuller throughout the day.
The criticisms of jerky's nutrition seem a bit nitpicky. Sure, it can be a bit high in sodium. But if you manage to stick to just one serving and you're sweating on a regular basis, that should be a non-issue. A few varieties are high in sugar, but those are rare and easily identifiable. Concerns over MSG, sodium nitrate and artificial flavors might have some merit, but many major jerky manufacturers simply don't use such ingredients anymore. If they do, it's in one or two select varieties.
Jerky can be an awesome snack. Do your research, look at the nutrition facts and check out the ingredients label. If there are no obvious red flags, you're all set to snack with a clear mind.