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Healthy Beef Jerky? This Former Junk Food is Now a High-Protein Snack

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Here’s a phrase that might sound like an oxymoron: healthy beef jerky.

Traditionally, gas station jerkies like Slim Jims were straight-up junk food. They cured cheap meat with nitrates and nitrites (classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, by the way) and then loaded it with sodium, sugar, and artificial flavors and additives (um, yuck!).

RELATED: 4 Reasons You Have Sugar Cravings

Those still exist, but there’s a whole new category of healthy beef jerky, made by companies using high-quality, grass-fed beef (and also organic chicken, pork and turkey in some cases), which is higher in healthy fats like omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed and finished beef.

RELATED: The Paleo Diet, Explained

What is Beef Jerky?

Beef jerky is traditionally made by taking lean cuts of beef and then marinating them with sauces, spices and other additives. The meat is then processed by curing, smoking or drying it.

The new healthier brands of jerky are dehydrating the meat or curing it with natural ingredients like salt and vinegar and skipping unhealthy additives. In many cases, they’re even adding additional nutritious ingredients, like antioxidant-rich spices and coconut oil. (Just still keep an eye out for excess sugar.)

Health Benefits of Beef Jerky

Beef jerky is a fast, easy, high-protein snack that’s low in carbs and perfect for after a workout or to throw in your travel bag. Beyond its protein punch, jerky can be a decent, though not great, source of some essential vitamins and minerals, including zinc, iron, folate and choline, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

What to Look For When Shopping For Jerky

What’s the best way to know if the jerky you’re buying is healthy or not? First, you need to pay attention to the food labels. Look for jerky that has no added nitrates or nitrites—the preservatives that have been linked to certain types of cancer (as mentioned earlier).

It’s also a good idea to choose meat that is grass-fed and organic, which offers more nutrients and less fillers and antibiotics than conventionally-raised meats. And remember to keep an eye out for sodium levels because most jerkies contain lots of salt, which is typically part of the curing process.

You can also make your own at home, or check out these five healthy brands worth biting into.

Healthy Beef Jerky Brands to Try

  • 1. Lorissa’s Kitchen

    (Image: Lorissa’s Kitchen)

    Made with 100% grass-fed beef and other clean ingredients, Lorissa’s flavors—like Korean Barbeque—are super delicious. Lorissa’s original Tender Beef Steak Strips contain 9 grams of protein per serving, no preservatives and no added MSG or nitrites. The only downside is the sugar is a little high, so stick to a serving at a time.

  • 2. Laura’s Lean Beef

    (Image: Laura’s Lean Beef)

    Laura’s doesn’t have as many fancy flavors as others, but it’s made with meat that’s both grass-fed and certified USDA organic. It’s high in protein and low in sugar. They also don’t add artificial ingredients, preservatives, erythorbate, nitrates, nitrites, or MSG. Laura’s Original Beef Jerky is gluten-free and has a whopping 11 grams of protein per serving.

  • 3. The New Primal

    (Image: The New Primal)

    If Slim Jims were your jam, try The New Primal’s meat sticks, like the Cilantro Lime Turkey Sticks made with free-range turkey (with no added hormones or antibiotics), sea salt, and antioxidant-packed spices, or Habanero Pineapple, made with grass-fed beef. The Cilantro Lime Turkey sticks have 7g of protein and 45 calories per serving. The snacks are certified paleo and gluten-free, and Whole30-approved with 0 (yes, zero!) grams of sugar.

  • 4. Wilde

    (Image: Wilde)

    Wilde makes jerky-based protein chips with chicken and pork, and minus the potato. Its Himalayan Pink Salt Chicken Chips, for instance, are made from 100% all-natural chicken breast and zero sugar. They’re high in protein (20 grams per bag), low-carb and gluten- and grain-free.

    RELATED: Coconut Oil Vs. Olive Oil: Which is Healthier?

  • 5. EPIC

    (Image: EPIC)

    If you love cured meat, EPIC makes it all— Sesame Ginger Chicken bites, Venison Sea Salt and Pepper snack strips, and Bison Bacon Cranberry bars. EPIC combines protein with fruits, nuts, seeds and spices for some delicious flavor profiles. They also make bone broth, animal oils, and more, all of it produced with the highest, healthy standards—for both you and the planet.

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