Fishing, camping, hunting, at the ballgame, or in front of the TV, beef jerky can be enjoyed pretty much anywhere. But this popular snack is no modern marvel: Humans have drying almost any lean meat (beef, pork, venison, or smoked turkey) for thousands of years in order to preserve it. However, our ancestors may not have realized the health effects of these tasty meat products — this snack makes the Greatist dangerfood list because it’s high in fat, calories, and sodium, and even contains potentially cancer-causing agents.

Quirky Jerky — Why It’s Dangerous

Photo by Aleksandra Flora

One large piece of beef jerky packs more than 80 calories and 5 grams of fat — and two of those fat grams are the saturated kind, which (when consumed in excess) may contribute to adverse health effects and increase the risk for coronary heart diseaseSaturated fatty acids and risk of coronary heart disease: modulation by replacement nutrients. Siri-Tarino, P.W., Sun, Q., Hu, F.B., et al. Atherosclerosis Research, Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, Oakland, CA 94609, USA. Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 2010 Nov;12(6):384-90.. Although jerky is high in protein (about 7 grams per piece), the main issue is the high amount of sodium. One ounce of beef jerky contains about 450mg of sodium, or almost 20 percent of the maximum recommended daily intake. And because many jerky products are sold in 4-ounce packages, many people who finish off an entire bag end up consuming 4 servings at once — that’s almost a full day’s worth of sodium in one package. Consuming too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and in some cases has been linked to stomach cancerSalt intake, hypertension, and osteoporosis. Caudarella, R., Vescini, F., Rizzoli, E., et al. GVM Hospitals of Care and Research, Cotignola, Italy. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation, 2009;32(4 Suppl):15-20. Review of salt consumption and stomach cancer risk: Epidemiological and biological evidence. Wang, X., Terry, P., Yan, H. World J Gastroenteroly, 2009 May 14; 15(18):2204-2213..

Think single-serving packages are better? Think again. One piece of Slim Jim may look pretty innocent, but that bad boy will keep its fans anything but slim. Just one Slim Jim snack stick contains 150 calories, 5 grams of saturated fat, and even some trans fat (0.5 grams).

Another issue with dehydrating raw meat or poultry is pathogenic bacteria are likely to survive the dry heat of a warm oven or a food dehydrator if the temperatures aren’t high enough. In fact, several salmonella outbreaks have been associated with beef jerkyLethality of commercial whole-muscle beef jerk manufacturing processes against Salmonella serovars and Escherichia coli 0157:H7. Buege, D.R., Searls, G., Ingham, S.C. Department of Food Science, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA. Journal of Food Protection, 2006 Sep;69(9):2091-9.. The main problem? Most brands of jerky add preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria, molds, fungi, or yeast and to delay rancidity. Some brands of jerky contain MSG to enhance flavor, and while some believe this additive can cause negative health effects, the research is still controversial. The most serious additive is sodium nitrite, which is added to jerky to inhibit the growth of bacterial spores that cause botulism, a potentially deadly food borne illness. Nitrites are added to many processed meat products (think ham, bacon, and hot dogs), and also help to preserve the color of the meat. Sure, that may sound like a good thing, but here’s the not-so-great side of it: When sodium nitrite is digested, it can form nitrosamines in the intestines, which are carcinogenic, and have been linked to colon cancer in some studiesTotal N-nitroso compounds and their precursors in hot dogs and in the gastrointestinal tract and feces of rats and mice: possible etiologic agents for colon cancer. Mirvish, S.S., Haorah, J., Zhou, L., et al. Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE 68198-6805. The Journal of Nutrition, 2002 Nov;132(11 Suppl):3526S-3529S.Risk of colorectal and other gastro-intestinal cancers after exposure to nitrate, nitrite and N-nitroso compounds: a follow-up study. Knekt, P., Jarvinen, R., Dich, J., et al. National Public Health Institute, Helsinki, Finland. International Journal of Cancer, 1999 Mar 15;80(6):852-6..

Banish the Beef? — Your Action Plan

All these facts don’t mean you have to give it up beef jerky completely. Jerky quality varies greatly and depends on the choice of meat, preservatives, and preservation technique.Stay away from jerky products that consist of highly processed, chopped, and formed meat. (Ahem, we’re lookin’ at you, Slim Jim!) Unfortunately, the consumer can’t tell what the beef quality is from the ingredient list, so look for products made of lean meat since fat causes spoilage. Learn to read labels before buying and look for brands with lower sodium and fat contents. As always, check yourself before you wreck yourself! Keep portion sizes small and eat one serving at a time (instead of the whole package at once).

If the cancer-causing nitrites are causing worry, we have some good news: Vitamin C prevents nitrosamines from forming in the intestines, so try pairing vitamin C-rich foods like oranges, broccoli, green peppers, and Brussels sprouts with that jerky treat. Don’t want to give up the jerky for good? Look for organic brands that say “no preservatives” and “no nitrates” on the packaging. Although they’re still considered a processed meat, they’re much better than the original stuff.

And finally, in most cases, making versions of store-bought dangerfoods at home is often a good alternative but we seriously don’t recommend making jerky at home since it can be hard to achieve the high temperatures needed to kill all the bacteria. Sorry, DIY-ers!

Five portable, high-protein alternatives to beef jerky:

Roasted Edamame via

High Protein Granola bars via Tastebook

Homemade Trail Mix via EatingWell

Banana Bread Protein Muffins via Dashing Dish

Peanut Btter Protein Balls via Oxygen