The Best and Worst Beef Jerky—Ranked!
But there's no reason jerky should only be a gas station snack. When you need metabolism-revving, hunger-satisfying protein after a workout—or just a healthy snack on the road—beef jerky is a great go-to. The drying process is beneficial in two ways: it requires getting rid of excess fat (as it could go bad without refrigeration) so you're left with a low-fat product, and the water lost concentrates the protein in the meat to nearly double its amount in the same portion of uncured meat.
As the all-natural, grass-fed beef trend converges with the emerging artisanal product market, athletes, and health-conscious snackers are turning to jerky as a satiating alternative to munchies like chips or bars without being restricted to additive-laden gas station products.
To separate themselves from the jerkies of the past, many brands claim they don't contain some of the worst food additives like added nitrites or MSG, but that doesn't necessarily mean the jerky is nitrite- or MSG-free.
Cured meats contain sodium nitrates and nitrites to make the meat look appealing, preserve it, and keep it free of harmful bacteria. Natural sources like celery powder can also be used and still allow a product to claim "All Natural" as well as "No Nitrites Added." Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, explains, "Whether it's the synthetic version or from celery powder, it's basically the same thing." She also explained there's still no verdict on whether nitrites are harmful or safe. In this case, we prefer the undebated alternative: instead of chemical or naturally-occurring nitrites, jerky can simply be cured with just salt and vinegar.
The issue with MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a bit different. Because glutamate is an amino acid, it is found naturally in many foods—cured meats, tomatoes, or fermented foods—and it is what contributes that "umami" or "savory" taste. When a bag says, "No MSG added," it means there's no monosodium glutamate, but there can still be ingredients that contain glutamate—hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, and soy sauce—and will have the same effects as MSG. What are those effects exactly?
According to a study published in BMC Neuroscience, glutamate activates taste bud cells that release the "happy" hormone serotonin, so when you eat MSG or any glutamate-containing food, that feel-good feeling increases your desire to continue eating. When food scientists add it to your chicken nuggets or Doritos, they're hacking MSG's brain-signalling properties that would typically tell your body you're eating a healthy protein. Instead, you're eating highly-processed junk.
If the naturally-glutamate-rich food is a high-protein, nutritionally-sound piece of jerky, the effects aren't as disastrous. However, the adage still stands: too much of anything is a bad thing. Moskovitz reiterates, "While a food product labeled MSG-free may still contain free glutamate, as long as you're eating it in small portions it should not pose any harm."
HOW WE RANKED IT: When we looked at nutritionals, to earn a spot on the best list we wanted to see jerky lower than or equal to 400 mg of sodium and 5 grams of sugar. Because all jerky is typically rich in protein, protein levels were not as much of a deciding factor (unless it otherwise came to a tie) as the source of that protein: the beef. Jerkies were awarded points for using grass-fed, organic, and hormone-free varieties because they have five times as much heart-healthy omega-3s and twice as much anti-inflammatory conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef.
Jerkies with nitrites either from celery or chemicals were given deductions, as was the case with MSG. While the glutamate in monosodium glutamate might be indistinguishable from that in soy sauce, we preferred seeing jerky flavored with naturally-occurring glutamate as well as spices like metabolism-boosting cayenne pepper rather than just MSG.
Three Jerks Jerky Filet Mignon Beef Jerky, Original
Nutrition (1 oz): 100 calories, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 370 mg sodium, 6 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 12 g protein
Ingredients: filet mignon, tamari soy sauce (water, soybeans, salt, alcohol, rice vinegar, lactic acid), Worcestershire sauce (distilled white vinegar, molasses, cane sugar, water, salt, onions, anchovies, garlic, cloves, tamarind extract, natural flavorings, chili pepper extract), evaporated cane sugar, natural hickory smoke flavor, garlic powder, onion powder, spices, cayenne pepper
You no longer have to go to a five-star restaurant to get your filet mignon fix. Just pick up a bag of Three Jerks Jerky! This artisanal jerky is made without artificial ingredients and boasts one of the highest amounts of protein. The only issue is that it's a little high in the sugar department, which is why we had to knock it back compared to its low-sugar peers. We're also moderately skeptical of their use of "natural flavorings" and "spices," which can be used to cover up the use of MSG.
Chef's Cut Real Steak Jerky, Original Recipe
Nutrition (1 oz): 90 calories, 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 340 mg sodium, 6 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 10 g protein
Ingredients: beef, soy sauce (water, vinegar, salt, hydrolyzed corn and soy protein, caramel color, natural flavor, cultured dextrose, lactic acid, green tea extract, mustard oil), sugar, Worcestershire sauce (distilled white vinegar, molasses, sugar, water, salt, onions, anchovies, garlic, cloves, tamarind extract, natural flavorings, chili pepper extract), horseradish (horseradish roots, vinegar, salt and mustard oil), liquid smoke (water, natural hickory smoke flavor, vinegar, molasses, caramel color and salt), less than 2%: cultured celery powder, sea salt, black pepper, red pepper
Yes, this jerky is high in protein and low in fat, but we're calling Chef's Cut's bluff when they claim they use "only the finest real ingredients—just like you would find at your favorite steakhouse." We're not sure you'd find hydrolyzed corn and soy protein (MSG) or caramel color—which can carry a possible carcinogen, 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), that forms during the manufacturing of some kinds of caramel color—at your steakhouse or your kitchen. And if you're steering clear of nitrites, heads up. This jerky contains nitrite-containing celery powder.
Oberto Original Beef Jerky
Nutrition (1 oz): 80 calories, 0.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 520 mg sodium, 8 g carbs (0 g fiber, 7 g sugar), 10 g protein
Ingredients: beef, water, brown sugar, agave syrup, sea salt spices and natural flavorings, natural smoke flavor, beef stock
It's a fairly simple ingredient list for one of the largest name brand jerkies, but we're not completely sold. "No MSG" only means they didn't add monosodium glutamate, but it's been known to hide in "spices," "natural flavoring," and even "natural smoke flavor." Besides their sneakiness, we also dinged them for their high sodium levels (which have increased by 110 milligrams since their last reformulation), higher sugar count (which increased from 5 grams to 7 grams), and obscure source of "beef." And while Oberto used to be the second highest source of protein of the bunch, they've dethroned themselves by reducing their count from 13 to 10 grams when they chose to add more water and less meat to their bags.
Jack Link's Original Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 460 mg sodium, 6 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 11 g protein
Ingredients: beef, water, sugar, brown sugar, contains less than 2% salt, beef stock, flavors, soy sauce [(wheat, soybeans, salt), hydrolyzed corn protein, yeast extract, maltodextrin, citric acid, pineapple powder.
It might have made it on our list of the best gas station foods for weight loss, but with all the other brands on the market, you should just leave it at that: a last-minute, gas-station snack. Although we give Jack Link's points for decreasing their sodium count by 130 milligrams in this new recipe, we are disappointed that means they compensated with an extra two grams of sugar and one fewer gram of protein. It's still the third highest levels of sodium. However, on days when you're too busy to be bothered with snack-time complications, we might let it slide with its high levels of protein and lack of nitrites/nitrates, just as long as you wash it all down with lots of water.
Krave Original Sea Salt
Nutrition: 100 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 340 mg sodium, 11 g carbs (0 g fiber, 10 g sugar), 9 g protein
Ingredients: Beef, Cane Sugar, Gluten Free Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol), Honey, Contains 2% or Less of the Following: Sea Salt, Granulated Garlic, Onion Powder, Paprika, Spices.
Yes, Krave's jerky is made with an impressive list of all-natural, minimally-processed ingredients, but this tiny one-ounce serving has a whopping 10 grams of sugar in it. A third of every gram of jerky is sugar. For comparison, a fifth of each gram of a glazed Krispy Kreme donut is sugar.
AND THE #1 WORST BEEF JERKY IS…
Matador Original Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 710 mg sodium, 7 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 9 g protein
Ingredients: beef, water, sugar, salt, brown sugar, contains 2% or less of smoke flavor, flavors, monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin, pineapple powder, sodium erythorbate, citric acid, sodium nitrite
This Matador certainly raises some red flags (pun intended). In this case, that "NEW RECIPE" label on the package is actually a bad thing. Matador may have decreased the fat count for each serving by half a gram, but they also increase the sodium by 40 milligrams, added an extra gram of sugar, and decreased the total protein count by two grams.
That 710 milligrams of blood-pressure-raising sodium is more than four times what you'd find in the same size serving of chips. It's also one of the only brands that uses MSG and not much else to flavor it besides smoke flavoring and sugar.
And finally, this is the only jerky that contains purified nitrites. Under conditions of high heat or stomach acid, sodium nitrite reacts with amines to form cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Luckily, this reaction can be hindered by the addition of citric acid, which Matador includes in its recipe. Also, because jerky isn't cooked like nitrite-containing bacon and hot dogs are, the risk of forming these carcinogens is lower.
AND NOW… THE BEST
Country Archer All Natural Beef Jerky Original
Nutrition: 70 calories, 1 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 280 mg sodium, 4 g carbs (0 g fiber, 4 g sugar), 7 g protein
Ingredients: Grass Fed Beef, Gluten Free Tamari Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, May also contain Alcohol and Sugar), Organic Brown Sugar (Organic Sugar, Organic Molasses), Garlic, Pineapple Juice, Liquid Smoke (Water, Natural Hickory Smoke Flavor), Organic Worcestershire (Water, Organic Vinegar, Organic Gluten Free Tamari [Water, Organic Soybeans, Salt], Organic Evaporated Cane Syrup, Salt, Organic Spices), Black Pepper
We love Country Archer's commitment to supporting local farms and using local ingredients when they can. It ensures that the jerky is made with fresh ingredients and not health-harming preservatives or artificial additives. It's low in sugar and sodium, but unfortunately, it's also low in muscle-building protein.
Nick's Sticks' Traditional Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 70 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 250 mg sodium, 5 g carbs (0 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 9 g protein
Ingredients: grass-fed and finished beef, soy sauce (water, soybeans, salt, alcohol), brown sugar, lemon juice, black pepper, granulated garlic
Nick's Sticks, or in this case, Nick's Jerky is made with a short, simple list of ingredients for a clean, healthy piece of jerky. It might be nearly identical in nutritionals to the jerky above it, but we ranked it higher because Nick uses 100% grass-fed beef and Country Archer only uses extra-lean USDA-inspected beef that typically has saturated fat levels 3-4 times higher than grass-fed beef because of the filling corn feed.
Field Trip All Natural Beef Jerky, Original No. 3
Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 4 g carbs (1 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 14 g protein
Ingredients: Top Round Beef, Gluten Free Reduced Sodium Soy Sauce (Water, soybeans, salt, alcohol), Apple Juice, Brown Sugar, Pineapple Juice, Water, Natural Hickory Liquid Smoke, Rice Wine, Black Pepper, Granulated Garlic, Red Wine Vinegar, Ginger, White Pepper, Granulated Onion
Field Trip was founded by three guys who were fed up with the fact that fitness programs claimed beef jerky was a good snack, but the only options were those with processed meats and chemicals. The result is the highest protein beef jerky of the bunch made from top round beef, no preservatives, no artificial ingredients, and no MSG. They even use creative ways to sweeten the meat, like using pineapple juice and apple juice rather than used refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup.
The New Primal Grass-fed Beef Jerky Original
Nutrition: 90 calories, 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 240 mg sodium, 5 g carbs (0 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 12 g protein
Ingredients: Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished Beef, Pineapple Juice, Coconut Aminos, Honey, Lemon Juice, Apple Cider Vinegar, Less than 2% of: Smoked Sea Salt, Garlic, Onion, White Pepper, Smoked Paprika, Ginger, Black Pepper
Low in sodium and sugar, and packed with protein, this beef jerky might raise an eyebrow with its high fat levels. Don't be alarmed. Because The New Primal uses grass-fed beef, that fat is full of healthy omega-3s and CLA. CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, isn't as present in grain-fed cattle because the CLA comes directly from the grass. This fatty acid contains a group of chemicals that provide a wide variety of health benefits, including improved blood sugar regulation, maintenance of lean body mass and reduced body fat.
Think Jerky Sweet Chipotle Grass-Fed Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 66 calories, 1.3 g fat (0.3 g saturated fat), 224 mg sodium, 2.6 g carbs (0 g fiber, 2.6 g sugar), 10.5 g protein
Ingredients: Grass-Fed Beef, Water, Cane Sugar, Raspberry Juice Concentrate (Red Raspberries), Sea Salt, Smoked Chipotle Pepper Powder, Ancho Chili Pepper Powder, Smoked Paprika, Black Pepper, Cayenne Pepper
Joshua Buchbinder, M.S. and Fitness Manager at 24 Hour Fitness Super Sport in Aurora, Colorado says that he enjoys snacking on some beef jerky after a long, high-intensity workout, "The protein in the jerky aids muscle repair and provides a good deal of salt, an electrolyte lost through sweat that reduces soreness and speeds recovery." It's even better when that protein is 100% grass-fed and finished like this Think Jerky is.
AND THE #1 BEST BEEF JERKY IS…
Nutrition: 70 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 0 g carbs (0 g fiber, 0 g sugar), 12 g protein
Ingredients: Beef and Marinade (Marinade: Apple Cider Vinegar, Water, Sea Salt, Coriander, Black Pepper, and Allspice)
Biltong is a jerky that has a specific recipe: It's dipped in a vinegar marinade, sprinkled with coriander and other spices, and then air dried for 3-6 days. The process is just as simple as its ingredients, resulting in a piece of beef that's more tender than jerky and certainly very healthy.
Of course, jerky doesn't come in just original flavors (or even beef, for that matter). You can choose from pork, bison, chicken, turkey, fish you name it. And with jerkies increasing in popularity, their flavors have expanded beyond just BBQ or teriyaki to combinations like "Maple Bourbon Churro" or "Ancho Chipotle." Below we found the best and the worst of some of your most popular flavor categories, so you know what to look for when you pick up a bag.
EAT THIS! Country Archer Teriyaki Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 50 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 240 mg sodium, 5 g carbs (0 g fiber, 5 g sugar), 6 g protein
Ingredients: Grass Fed Beef, Organic Brown Sugar (Organic Sugar, Organic Molasses), Gluten Free Tamari Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, May also contain Alcohol and Sugar), Organic Seasoned Rice Vinegar Dressing (Organic Rice Vinegar, Organic Sugar, Water, Salt), Water, Pineapple Juice, Garlic, Organic Worcestershire (Water, Organic Vinegar, Organic Gluten Free Tamari [Water, Organic Soybeans, Salt], Organic Evaporated Cane Syrup, Salt, Organic Spices), Black Pepper, Ginger
OR THIS! Oberto All Natural Teriyaki Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 7 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 11 g protein
Ingredients: beef, brown sugar, soy sauce (water, wheat, soybeans, salt), spices, natural flavors, salt, apple juice concentrate, natural smoke flavor
NOT THAT! Matador Teriyaki Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 80 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 530 mg sodium, 7 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 10 g protein
Ingredients: beef, sugar, salt, less than 2% soy sauce powder (wheat, soybean, salt), fructose, flavorings, hydrolyzed corn protein, monosodium glutamate, water, citric acid, sodium erythorbate, pineapple flavor (modified food starch, maltodextrin, natural flavor), disodium inosinate, sodium nitrite
Teriyaki refers to an ancient Japanese method of grilling meat, and usually includes soy sauce, brown sugar, sake, and ginger. It should not include fructose or 5 versions of MSG (hydrolyzed corn protein, monosodium glutamate, modified food starch, "flavorings," and disodium inosinate) as it does in Matador's version. For a more traditional taste and less sodium, go with a preservative-free brand like Country Archer, and if you're in need of a quick fix, gas-station-brand Oberto will fit the bill.
EAT THIS! Uncle Andy's Jerky Tex's Tangy BBQ Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 60 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 280 mg sodium, 2 g carbs (0 g fiber, 1 g sugar), 8 g protein
Ingredients: Beef, Cider Vinegar, Sugar, Sea Salt, Spices, Dehydrated Vegetables (Garlic, Onion, Tomato), Chili Pepper, Celery Powder, Smoked Paprika, Citric Acid
NOT THAT! Jack Link's KC Masterpiece Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 430 mg sodium, 7 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 11 g protein
Ingredients: beef, water, brown sugar, sugar, less than 2% KC Masterpiece® barbecue sauce [tomato puree (water, tomato paste), high fructose corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, less than 2% spices, natural hickory smoke flavor, natural flavors, modified food starch, salt, xanthan gum, dried onion, dried garlic, caramel color, turmeric, paprika extracts], salt, flavorings, tomato powder, natural hickory smoke flavor, citric acid
If you didn't already know, barbeque sauce can have a surprising amount of added sugar, as demonstrated by Jack Link's KC Masterpiece beef jerky. While not unreasonably high, it still has 5 grams more than what you're getting with Uncle Andy's BBQ, and those 5 grams contain belly-busting high fructose corn syrup. Uncle Andy's gives you all the flavors of BBQ without the sugar because they use a Memphis-style blend of natural spices that starts off sweet but finishes with a cayenne kick.
EAT THIS! The New Primal Spicy Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 90 calories, 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 250 mg sodium, 5 g carbs (0 g fiber, 3 g sugar), 12 g protein
Ingredients: Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished Beef, Pineapple Juice, Coconut Aminos, Honey, Lemon Juice, Apple Cider Vinegar, Jalapeno Peppers, Cayenne, Smoked Sea Salt, Garlic, Onion, White Pepper, Smoked Paprika, Ginger, Black Pepper
NOT THAT! Krave Sweet Chipotle Beef Jerky
Nutrition: 90 calories, 1.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 350 mg sodium, 12 g carbs (0 g fiber, 11 g sugar), 8 g protein
Ingredients: Beef, Cane Sugar, Gluten Free Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol), Honey. Contains 2% or Less of the Following: Garlic Powder, Paprika, Chipotle, Spices (including Celery Seed), White Vinegar, Citric Acid
You'd think that spicy jerky would be all heat, right? Wrong. When it comes to Krave's sweet chipotle beef jerky, the emphasis is certainly on the "sweet." This meat has some of the highest levels of sugar in all jerky products. It's as if you're eating two Milano cookies, some of the worst cookies in america. When you want to go spicy, go all the way with The New Primal's jerky. It's gluten-free, uses omega-3-rich grass-fed beef, and is teeming with metabolism-boosting spices like paprika, cayenne, and jalapeno peppers.
EAT THIS! Epic Currant & Sesame BBQ Chicken
Nutrition: 90 calories, 2.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 290 mg sodium, 8 g carbs (<1 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 9 g protein
Ingredients: natural chicken, organic currants, sea salt, garlic, onion, sesame seeds, sesame oil, ginger, black pepper, red pepper flakes, red pepper
OR THIS! Lorissa's Kitchen Ginger Teriyaki Chicken
Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 400 mg sodium, 6 g carbs (0 g fiber, 6 g sugar), 11 g protein
Ingredients: chicken breast, brown sugar, cane sugar, tamari soy sauce (water, soybeans, salt, sugar), chicken broth, water, less than 2%: salted sake (water, rice, salt), sesame seeds, sea salt, ginger, garlic powder, natural flavor, pineapple juice
NOT THAT! Krave Lemon Garlic Turkey Jerky
Nutrition: 90 calories, 0.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 350 mg sodium, 10 g carbs (0 g fiber, 10 g sugar), 10 g protein
Ingredients: Turkey Breast, Cane Sugar, Gluten Free Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol). Contains 2% or Less of the Following: Lemon Juice, Granulated Garlic, Spice.
Most poultry jerkies are even lower in fat than beef or pork because of their naturally low levels of fat, making them a great option if you're steering clear of fat. Although every one of these brands is using all natural, simple ingredients, you can't overlook the sugar levels of Krave's Turkey Jerky. When picking poultry, go for the bloat-banishing bites from Lorissa's Kitchen, the Ginger Teriyaki Chicken, or the sweet and spicy barbeque pieces from Epic, the Currant & Sesame BBQ Chicken Jerky.