I admit it, I love beef jerky.
Weirdly the fact that I feel like it’s something I’ve actually got to admit shows how the perception of this protein-packed snack is maybe a bit, well, shady. And it’s not surprising. Beef jerky forged its questionable rep by being the tough, weird-looking, highly-processed and super salty snack found in gas stations and convenience stores everywhere—but it’s now experiencing a renaissance as a healthy, protein-packed portable snack. That’s thanks in part to a surge of high-protein eating plans like the Paleo diet, but also because of stars like Olivia Munn, Blake Shelton and Elizabeth Hurley, all of whom have shared their love for the snack.
“It is inspiring to see you can make products that are no only successful and tasty, but are also healthy and helping people live stronger and healthier lives,” said Munn about her investment in Chef’s Cut Real Jerky.
Now, not all jerkies are good for you—there are some that are honestly (forgive the pun) a cut above the rest. Here’s what to look for, plus a few of my favourites.
Check out the ingredient list
Tons of new jerky startups are popping up, taking advantage of the trend—and the growing $2.8 billion ‘meat snacks’ category. And many are producing small-batch, seemingly less processed options.
When beef jerky isn’t full of crappy preservatives, like nitrates and monosodium glutamate (MSG), and additives such as maltodextrin (a starch), it makes a great snack. High in protein and energy-boosting iron, low in fat and calories—and shelf-stable to boot—beef jerky is perfect for road trips and hikes, or even to keep stashed in your gym bag for a post-workout protein boost. Or, add a 1-oz portion to carb-y snacks such as fruit or whole-grain crackers to keep cravings at bay in between meals.
When you’re picking a jerky, make sure to review the ingredient list before you buy. The first item listed should always be a protein. Today’s commercially-prepared jerky is usually made from either beef, pork or turkey (unless it’s a vegan jerky, which is usually made with soy or seitan). The next two ingredients should be something along the lines of sugar and soy sauce or salt.
Try to find a jerky that has as little sugar and sodium as possible, without added fillers and starches like the aforementioned maltodextrin, nitrates and monosodium glutamate, as well as hydrolyzed corn protein (a flavour enhancer). These ingredients offer zero nutrition and really don’t need to be in your jerky.
Putting three jerky brands to the test
It’s a tough job, but in the name of science, I evaluated three commonly-found jerkies for taste, nutrition and ingredients. Here’s how they stacked up:
1. Jack Links Original Beef Jerky
Jack Links is your classic jerky brand; its smoky flavour and saltiness are exactly what you’d expect.
Some not-so-great stuff listed, including maltodextrin, hydrolyzed corn protein, celery extract (a.k.a. nitrates) and yeast extract.
A 20-g portion has 60 calories, 420 mg sodium, 3 g sugar and 9 g protein.
Despite the so-so ingredient list, this jerky was the best tasting, and contained the least amount of sugar among the three I tried (although also it also had the highest sodium count). I ate the entire bag, and the dog would not leave me alone while I was doing so. It seems he prefers Jack Links too.
2. Krave Sea Salt Beef Jerky
This one had a strangely sweet flavour and a slightly waxy texture. The pieces of beef were tender.
Nothing surprising here—beef, sugar, soy sauce and spices. It’s gluten-free, too.
A 25-g portion has 90 calories, 300 mg sodium, 9 g sugar and 8 g protein.
This was the second best tasting, but only by a shade. It was also fairly high in sugar. Still, I ate this entire bag, too.
3. Devour Sweet and Pepper BBQ Pork Jerky
I tried Devour’s pork jerky for something different. It was sticky and tender, but had an unpalatable sweet and waxy coating.
All the usual suspects—including soy sauce, tomato powder, molasses powder, smoke flavour and spices— without lots of additives.
A 23-g portion has 60 calories, 240 mg sodium, 9 g sugar and 6 g protein.
The numbers are good, but this pick was definitely my least favourite. I couldn’t even finish a whole piece.
Make your own
I love making my own small batches of jerky for snacking: just cut thin strips of lean beef, marinate in soy sauce, and dry in a dehydrator (on low to medium for 6 to 8 hours) or bake in a 175F for 4 hours or until dry, flipping once. No more random, gas-station jerky for you!
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