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Is Beef Jerky Bad For You Or Just Misunderstood?

Refinery29 logo Refinery29 6/27/2018 Cory Stieg
a wooden table: Refinery29 © Photo: Getty Images. Refinery29

Jerky is kind of like the Michael B. Jordan of snacks — and not just because they're both beefy. Until recently, beef jerky had a pretty bad reputation for being a processed, salt-filled snack that you should steer clear of. Michael B. Jordan also had a somewhat tarnished reputation because of things that he said about women, but now that he's apologized, everyone loves him. And nowadays, nutrition experts agree that beef jerky can be a wonderful, delicious, snack, too.

If you identify as a beef jerky-hater, there are a few factors that might make you reconsider. For starters, jerky is a high-protein, low-carb food, says Courtney Dunn, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian in New York City. So, if you're looking for a snack that will keep you full for a while, jerky will do the trick, and may make you feel more satisfied than scarfing down a protein bar. And, unlike some other grab-and-go packaged snacks, meat contains lots of healthy minerals like iron and zinc. You can also find jerky at pretty much any bodega or supermarket, so it's incredibly convenient if you don't have time to make a full meal.

But the fact that jerky is packaged and preserved is also part of its problem. See, in order to keep dehydrated meat shelf-stable, and give jerky that scrumptious meaty flavor, the meat has to be packed with salt. Old-school jerky tends to be made with nitrates, which are chemicals that give processed and cured meats color, and have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. The controversial ingredient MSG (monosodium glutamate) is also found in some brands of jerky, Dunn says. That could be bad news because, although the FDA has classified MSG as "generally recognized as safe," it's known to trigger an allergic-type reaction in some people.

So, jerky isn't totally perfect, particularly for some people who need to limit the amount of sodium they eat in a day, Dunn says. "For people who need to restrict sodium, I would look for jerky that contains less than 140 mg of sodium per serving, and only eat one serving size," she says. Diets high in sodium can be associated with high blood pressure, so it's recommended to limit your daily intake to less than 2,300 mg per day, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

There's a wide variety of flavors and types of jerky out there. So, instead of opting for a pencil-shaped Slim Jim, choose jerky that's made from whole meat, rather than a processed mixture of mystery meat, Dunn says. There are lots of trendy jerky brands these days (like New Primal, Krave Jerky, Think Jerky, and even Trader Joe's) with enticing flavors, so there's bound to be something that you find appetizing. In terms of choosing the type of meat, one jerky isn't necessarily "better" for you than the others, Dunn says. "It depends on the brand, but beef jerky could be a bit higher in fat than chicken or turkey jerky, so I'd recommend to pick a jerky that best meets your [dietary] goals," she says.

TL;DR If you find yourself searching for a snack at a gas station, clamoring for a snack at your desk, or just want something to nibble on while you watch Michael B. Jordan videos — consider jerky. It might have been a problematic fave in the past, but it's back and delicious. No beef there.

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