If you’re looking for a portable protein snack, then why look any further than a piece of beef jerky? Ideal for a range of diets such as paleo or keto as well as different lifestyles, beef jerky is also a source of various vitamins and minerals. Like any number of foods though, there are concerns around consuming higher quantities of jerky.Traditionally cured using sodium nitrite, there is scientific evidence linking a high intake of nitrites (and nitrates) and cancers and even some mental health concerns. We take a look at this in some detail, as well as delving into beef jerky itself; its history and how it is made commercially. We also review some of the best beef jerky currently available to help you select the right jerky for your diet and your taste buds.
Our best pick is the 100% premium US beef People’s Choice beef jerky which is free from nitrites, nitrates, gluten, sugar and MSG.
Our budget pick is the hardwood smoked and 100% premium beef Jack Link’s original beef jerky with its MSG-free signature seasoning.
Quick Comparison: Top 10 Best Beef Jerky
1. People’s Choice Beef Jerky
A traditional style jerky, the People’s Choice beef jerky (16 oz) is free from nitrites/nitrates, preservatives, sugar, gluten and MSG. It also contains zero carbs and is high protein, making it suitable for paleo and other diets. This jerky comes in a resealable bag to maintain its freshness.Made from 100% premium US beef, it is seasoned with an all-natural blend which contains sea salt and cracked black pepper - although some have commented that the flavor on this can be a little bland. As this is a slightly thicker cut and drier jerky you may also find it a little dry compared to other styles of beef jerky. Some batches may also be quite fatty.
2. Jack Link’s Original Beef Jerky
Made in the US from lean cuts of 100% premium beef, the twin pack of Jack Link’s original beef jerky is 96% fat free. This jerky is slow cooked, and hardwood smoked and is seasoned with a signature blend of herbs and spices. This does not contain any added MSG.This jerky also comes in a resealable bag although there can be a risk of mold quickly developing on it once opened. Some have found the garlic flavor in this to be a little overpowering and you may also find there is too much sweetness.
3. Perky Jerky Original Turkey Jerky
Coming as a 14 oz resealable pack, the Perky Jerky original turkey jerky is free from nitrites, nitrates, added MSG or artificial preservatives. This jerky is a tender jerky made from turkey breast that is marinated for over 24 hours with garlic, soy and black pepper. This gives a jerky with hints of sweetness and flavors of cracked black pepper.
Each serving contains up to 11 grams of protein and is naturally low fat and gluten free as the soy sauce used in the marinade is a gluten free soy sauce. Some buyers have not been as keen on the texture of this turkey jerky and consider it to be too moist. There can also be inconsistencies across different batches of this, leaving some buyers disappointed with their purchase.
4. Cattleman’s Cut Original Beef Jerky
Made with USDA whole muscle steak which is marinated for around 48 hours; the slow cooked Cattleman’s Cut original beef jerky (10 oz) is flavored with layers of hardwood smoke, brown sugar and savory and sweet seasoning. This beef jerky comes in a clear resealable bag. To keep it fresh, you are advised to consume or refrigerate within three days of opening this jerky. This jerky is cured with nitrite and you may find that this is a sweeter jerky higher in sodium. This jerky may not be as tough a chew as you may expect or want.
5. Tillamook Country Smoker Zero Sugar Original Beef Jerky
Offering 14 grams of protein and zero grams of total carbs in each serving, the Tillamook Country Smoker zero sugar original beef jerky is ideal if you are on a keto diet. Free from any artificial ingredients, MSG, nitrates and sugar, this is made with 100% premium US beef which is smoked with real hardwood smoke.Available in different sized resealable packs, this can contain more gristle than other beef jerky and the odd buyer has commented that this is a little too salty for their tastes.
6. KRAVE Jerky Gourmet Beef Cuts, Original Sea Salt
The all-natural eight packs of KRAVE jerky gourmet beef cuts sea salt original (2.7 oz) are made from tender and lean cuts of beef. In resealable packs, this gluten free beef jerky is seasoned with sea salt and has a moist texture. There can be a chance of this jerky becoming moldy and its softer texture may not be liked by all. This also contains more sugar than some other jerky and its sweetness may mask the taste of the beef.This beef jerky is free from added nitrites and MSG and needs to be refrigerated or eaten within three days after opening.
7. Teriyaki Beef Jerky by Country Archer
Free from nitrates/nitrites, the Country Archer teriyaki beef jerky (8 oz) is also MSG free and the 100% grass-fed beef does not contain any antibiotics or hormones. Coming in a resealable pouch, this certified gluten free jerky is seasoned with gluten free tamari soy sauce, brown sugar organic Worcestershire sauce, black pepper, seasoned rice vinegar dressing, pineapple juice, garlic and other flavors. This jerky will need to be eaten within three days once opened. Some buyers have found this to be a tougher jerky and that its flavor can be too sweet.
8. Field Trip Gluten Free, High Protein, Original Beef Jerky
The soy, dairy and gluten free Field Trip original beef jerky (12 oz) is made from premium grass-fed beef and marinated in cracked pepper, brown sugar and smoke flavor for over 24 hours. This is also a nitrate/nitrite free jerky and does not contain any preservatives or MSG. It is also a lower sugar and lower sodium jerky. However, this may have less flavor than expected and some buyers have found recent batches to be harder than they are used too.
9. Oberto Trail Mix Original Beef Jerky
The gluten free eight pack of Oberto Trail Mix original beef jerky (2 oz) is also free from any artificial ingredients. The beef jerky pieces are mixed with pecans, pumpkin seeds, semi-sweet chocolate, sunflower seeds, walnuts, cranberries and golden raisins.There is a smaller quantity of jerky in this trail mix and it can flavor the other ingredients and soften the nuts. The combination of flavors may not suit all taste buds either.
10. Tillamook Country Smoker Old Fashioned Beef Jerky
The real hardwood smoked Tillamook Country Smoker old fashioned beef jerky (10 oz) is free from any artificial ingredients. Made with 100% premium USDA beef, this jerky is free from gluten and MSG and is flavored with salt, brown sugar, natural flavorings and vinegar. It also comes in a clear pouch. This softer jerky does need refrigerating after opening or using within three days and some consider that this jerky is a lot fattier than it used to be.
Things to Consider Before Buying Beef Jerky
Jerky is any kind of meat which has been salt cured and had its moisture content reduced to less than 50% of its total moisture. Although this curing and drying makes the meat tougher, it also concentrates its flavor.
Meat has been preserved in this way since at least the time of the Ancient Egyptians. The name jerky actually derived from the name ch’arki which means ‘to burn (meat)’ and this name was used by the Quechua, a native South American tribe who took boned and defatted meat from llamas and alpacas, sliced it, pounded it thin and rubbed it with salt. This meat was then smoked over a fire or sun dried.
This type of preservation was spotted by the Spanish Conquistadors who called it charqui and when they invaded further North, they saw that North American natives also dried meat from elk, buffalo and deer. The name charqui stuck, but with the Spanish pronunciation it soon became ‘jerky’.
Jerky became popular with the early pioneers who recognized it as an easy food source when times were hard, or they were on the move. They also found that the jerky was much tastier when spices were added to it for flavor.
Beef Cuts and USDA Terms for Jerky
Whether you make your own jerky or prefer to buy it, the cut of beef used to make the jerky will give a different flavor. A tender sirloin cut will give a more tender jerky and although the flank steak from the rear underbelly can be fatty and tougher, it does tend to have more flavor.
Some consider the ideal beef for jerky is range fed 100% premium, visually lean flank steak which has been USDA inspected.
Beef round can be from the top round which is inside the leg muscle, this is often quite tender, or the cheaper and tougher bottom round. The eve of round is the oval muscle in the rear leg and this is often used for commercial jerky manufacture. It actually takes around five pounds of beef to make one pound of jerky.
Some of the USDA terms for commercial jerky which you may see on packaging include ‘beef jerky’ which means that the jerky has been made from a single piece of beef. A ‘beef jerky chunked and formed’ is made from beef chunks which are molded, formed and then sliced into strips. In the same way a ‘ground and formed’ or ‘chopped and formed’ beef jerky is made from ground or chopped meat which has been molded and sliced.
If a jerky contains extenders or binders, its packet must state this, for example ‘beef and soy protein concentrate jerky’. A ‘beef jerky sausage’ will have been chopped and dried at any stage of manufacturing and must be in a casing.
Commercial Jerky Production
Whether beef, or another meat, it is usually processed in similar ways for making jerky – especially at the start of the process. The meat must first be processed to remove bones, connective tissues and fat. Any impurities or unwanted tissues or materials are also removed at this point. The meat is either cut, ground, or cut and frozen at this point – depending on how it will be cured.
The meat is usually dipped into curing solution and left in there long enough for it to cure but not so long that harmful bacteria begin to grow. Some manufacturers may also inject the meat with curing solution.
The curing solution is usually a blend of water, salt and sodium nitrite and is heated to a food safe temperature. The salt dehydrates the meat, the sodium nitrite stabilizes its color and helps stop the meat going rancid. As well as giving jerky its taste and longer shelf life, the curing solution also helps stop harmful bacteria from growing in the meat.
The curing solution is usually mixed with the brine or liquid seasoning which often contains spices, garlic, soy sauce, black pepper, hickory salt or many other seasonings or flavor. Liquid smoke can also be used to give the jerky a smoked taste without it needing to be physically smoked during cooking. Tenderizers such as polyphosphates can also be added to reduce the toughness of the jerky, although the use of these does mean that the jerky needs more time to dry.
Once the meat is cured and seasoned, it is usually molded into blocks and cooled down to a temperature of between 18°F and 28°F. Once cold enough to slice, it can then be sliced in line with the meat fibers. The strips are placed onto wire trays and put into a drying oven where they are heated to around 160°F and then cooled to around 90°F.
This cooking stage can take around 12 hours and after this cooking, the moisture of the meat will usually have been reduced to between 20% and 40%. The jerky can then be packaged – usually in a vacuum pack to help it stay fresh for longer.
Difference Between Jerky and Biltong
Although both made with dried meat, unlike jerky, biltong is not cooked at all. This South African snack is soaked in salt and vinegar brine and left to air dry in a process which can take as long as two weeks.
Biltong is often made from different meat cuts to jerky and it comes in wider strips which are easier to hang for air drying. Because it is soaked in vinegar, biltong has a distinctive acidic flavor rather than the traditional smoky flavor that jerky has.
As a commercial meat product, jerky processing is monitored through federal inspections by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). As well as relevant tests on the quality of the raw meat used, the finished jerky is also tested.
Concerns Around Nitrites and Nitrates in Beef Jerky
A recent study suggested that nitrates in processed meats and beef jerky may contribute to mania. Over 1000 people who had or did not have psychiatric disorders were involved in the study. Those who were hospitalized with mania had over three times the odds of having ever eaten meats cured with nitrate compared to those who did not have a history of serious psychiatric disorders.
Other diet components were analyzed, but cured meat was the food which stood out between the study participants. The findings of this study suggest that that some types of diet and the type and amount of bacteria in the gut may contribute to some brain disorders.
This link was further examined in the laboratory. Animals fed beef jerky (prepared with nitrate) developed hyperactivity and irregular sleep patterns within 14 days of starting the diet. The amount of jerky they were given was the equivalent to a human eating one jerky stick or hot dog per day. The researchers then worked with a manufacturer to produce a nitrate-free jerky and the study was repeated. This time, the animals on the nitrate-free jerky behaved similar to the control group who were fed on normal animal chow.
Although these are early findings, research will no doubt continue into the link between nitrates and mental health. Nitrates and nitrites themselves have already been extensively researched in the context of cancer and some neurodegenerative diseases.
As well as being made in our body, where they seem to act as natural anti-microbials, nitrates and nitrites are in water, soil and foods such as vegetables; in fact, vegetables are usually the biggest source of nitrates entering the body. They are also added to processed foods such as bacon and jerky as preservatives.
Nitrate and nitrite ions tend to be lumped together as nitrite can convert to nitrate and nitrate can easily be converted into nitrite. In the body, this nitrite can become either nitric oxide, which is an important signaling molecule in our circulation system, or bad molecules called N-nitroso compounds (NOC).
NOC have been shown to cause cancer in animals and may cause cancer in humans – there have been higher risks of stomach, kidney and colon cancer in those who have a higher meat and higher water nitrate intake compared to those who have low levels of both.
Chemicals called nitrosamines are a category of NOC; as are nitrosamides and both of these can form in the body. Nitrosamines are also generated when meats cook at high heat. Nitrosamines which have been pre-made or pre-formed are also in tobacco smoke, beer and other malt-brewed drinks.
Although vegetables are probably the biggest source of nitrate intake for most of us; the antioxidants such as vitamin C in vegetables actually help prevent nitrosamines from forming in the body. This and the fact that vegetables rarely cook at high temperatures means there is little concern around levels of nitrates from consuming high quantities of vegetables.
Exposure to excessive amounts of nitrates or nitrites can also cause a blood abnormality called methemoglobinemia which means that blood cannot carry oxygen to the tissues of the body.
As a positive, nitrates may be able to help physical fitness as they can make the energy-producing parts of our cells (the mitochondria) work more efficiently. This can mean less oxygen cost during exercise and a longer time before exhaustion is reached.
Beef Jerky Nutrition
Although nutritional value will vary across manufacturers, a 3.5 oz serving of beef jerky contains around 150 calories. Around 2.8 grams of this is carbs and just under 2 grams of this is fat. Around 50% of these 2 grams of fat is saturated fat.
Beef jerky is a naturally high protein snack and the serving will give you as much as 67.6% of the daily protein your body needs. The protein in jerky contains all nine of the essential amino acids that the body needs to support its functioning and growth.
Jerky is also high in vitamin B12, with a serving providing around 39% of the %DV. It is also a source of other B vitamins, phosphorous, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and zinc.
A 3.5 oz serving of beef jerky can provide as much as 2,790 mg of sodium – more than the current recommended daily limit of 2,300 mg. As well as adding flavor to jerky, salt also kills dangerous bacteria, so a lower sodium jerky as an occasional treat is currently the best option available for those watching their salt intake.
Storing Beef Jerky
Commercially made jerky has a shelf life of around 12 months. If the package advises you to refrigerate after opening or eat within a timeframe then you should follow this guidance to ensure that the jerky remains food safe.
Jerky can be prone to going moldy, as although much of its moisture has been removed, there is still enough moisture left to provide the right environment for the mold to grow. Jerky which has been thoroughly dehydrated is less prone to mold, but of course, this means a much drier jerky which may not suit all tastes (or teeth!).
In this review we have considered some of the concerns around eating jerky – especially those which contain nitrites/nitrates, which are probably best enjoyed in moderation or as an occasional treat. Some beef jerky are now made without sodium nitrite which makes them more suitable for a diet supplement, although care should still be taken around the higher sodium content of jerky.We hope you have enjoyed reading about some of the debate around jerky, as well as the background to this favorite snack. We also hope if you are looking for a protein snack as part of your diet or lifestyle, or an easy food for taking out on the trail, then you will look no further than our top ten best beef jerky for a protein pick-up.