The ingredient list is an important place to look when it comes to assessing the healthfulness of beef jerky.

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With the popularity of paleo and keto diets and a big consumer focus on protein, beef jerky has become more popular than ever. The category has grown from a few common longstanding brands to a wide range of options, available at not only gas stations and convenience stores, but also health food stores and farmer's markets. As for the healthfulness of this portable snack, that largely depends on how it's made. Here's what to know, including what research says and why label reading is key.

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Beef jerky nutrition

The nutrition facts for beef jerky can vary by brand, but according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) database, a 1-ounce portion provides 116 calories, 9 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat, and 3 grams of carbohydrate. It also has 15% of the daily value for immune-supporting zinc; 11% for phosphorus, a mineral needed to produce energy and repair cells; and 8% for iron, which helps transport oxygen in the body. These key minerals, as well as the fact that it's a handy, non-perishable source of protein, are some of the benefits of beef jerky.

Beef jerky and sodium

Beef jerky is generally quite high in sodium. A 1-ounce portion can pack nearly 20% of the daily advised sodium limit for adults. According to the American Heart Association, nine out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium, which may increase water retention, potentially leading to puffiness, bloating, and weight gain. The organization also states that, over time, excess sodium may up the risk of various health conditions, including enlarged heart, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and kidney stones.

Beef jerky is a processed red meat

Just like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs, beef jerky is a form of processed red meat. In 2020, researchers looked at the relationship between red and processed meat consumption and cancer risk. In their article, they wrote that a "large and consistent" body of epidemiologic research demonstrates associations between these foods and the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

If you do decide to eat processed meat, the American Institute for Cancer Research, which provides science-based information about cancer prevention and survival through diet, recommends eating very little of it. And if you decide to eat red meat, the group says to limit your consumption "to no more than three portions a week or about 12-18 ounces (cooked)."

Beef jerky ingredients

When evaluating any packaged food, including beef jerky, the first and most important thing to look at is the ingredient list. You may be surprised to uncover common allergens, such as soy; barley malt extract (a source of gluten); and preservatives, like sodium nitrite, which according to the Mayo Clinic may increase the risk of narrow, harder arteries and heart disease.

While you can shop for products with no nitrites, keep in mind that they will likely still be quite high in sodium. Otherwise, look for simple, recognizable ingredients. And consider options that are both USDA Certified Organic and grass-fed, such as Organic Valley Mighty Organic 100% Grass Fed Beef Jerky Sticks ($45 for a 24-pack, amazon.com); they're made from organic grass-fed beef, organic honey, sea salt, organic spices, organic garlic powder, cultured celery juice powder, and encapsulated lactic acid starter culture.

Plant-based alternatives

Short-term studies have shown benefits of replacing red meat with plant protein in reducing "bad" LDL cholesterol and other cardiac risk factors. So if you're trying to eat less meat but you enjoy jerky, know that there are now a variety of plant-based options to choose from. One of my personal favorites is mushroom jerky, which offers a comparable texture and umami taste. One that I like is Pan's Original Mushroom Jerky ($11, amazon.com). While it provides just 1 gram of protein per serving and 7 grams of fat and is higher in total carbs (16 grams), it also has an impressive 6 grams of fiber, 21% of the daily goal. Pan's also contains 45% of the daily value for vitamin D, a key nutrient required for immune function and bone health; and fun fact: mushrooms are actually the only plant source of this vital nutrient. Pan's mushroom jerky also has just 8% of the daily value for sodium per 3-tablespoon serving. The simple ingredients include organic dried shiitake mushrooms, water, avocado oil, organic coconut sugar, Himalayan pink salt, and organic chia seeds. Other plant-based options include jerky made from dried jackfruit or coconut.

Bottom line

As a nutritionist, I would not call beef jerky a "health food." That's due to its high sodium content and categorization as a processed red meat. However, if beef jerky is on your personal list of can't-live-without foods, think of it as an occasional treat. When you do eat it, balance out its high sodium content with plenty of naturally low-sodium, whole, plant-based foods; and consider mushroom or other plant varieties to nibble on more often.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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