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Columnist, Food

Not long ago, jerky was a shrink-wrapped snack item you grabbed at a gas station. In the past decade or so, it has been reinvented as a premium, artisanal specialty food, with dozens of brands in the game boasting simple ingredients and chef-inspired flavors. Its elevated status and popularity make sense, because it sits at the nexus of two major consumer trends — the focus on (or, one might say, obsession with) protein and the ever-growing demand for on-the-go food options. Jerky is billed as a portable protein powerhouse that is a healthier option than chips and other packaged snacks. But is it really good for you? Here are a few things to consider before you rip open a pack.

Drying meat is one of the most ancient and common methods of food preservation world-wide, and it was certainly a way of survival for our ancestors. But there is reason to rethink making modern-day jerky a regular part of your diet, especially if the meat has been cured with nitrates (or their chemical cousins, nitrites).

The most recent alarms about nitrate-cured meats such as jerky, hot dogs and salami were sounded this past July with the release of a John Hopkins Medicine study linking their consumption to mania, a mood disorder characterized by hyperactivity, euphoria and insomnia. The researchers found that people who were hospitalized for mania were more than three times as likely to have ever eaten cured meat as those who had no serious psychiatric issues.

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To be clear, the study does not show that nitrate-cured meat causes mania per se; the researchers just found a strong connection between the two, which they attribute to the nitrates in the products. In another study by the same researchers, rats that ate dried meat that contained nitrates displayed mania-like activity, while those given dried meat that did not contain nitrates had no abnormal behavior.

You might think it is easy to skirt that issue by buying one of the many jerky brands that boast “no nitrates or nitrites added.” Not so fast. Bizarre as it may sound, those claims do not actually mean there are no nitrates or nitrites in the product. They simply means the additives sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate were not used to cure the meat. (To technically be considered “cured” the product must contain one of those. Sodium nitrite is most commonly used today.)

Sodium nitrite functions to block the growth of bacteria and give cured meats its characteristic reddish color and unique flavor. To get a similar effect without the additive, many jerky (and ham, bacon and hot dog) producers use celery powder and/or celery juice, which are naturally rich sources of nitrates (which convert to nitrites during processing). In the end, the amount of nitrite you get is basically the same, and your body does not know the difference. To minimize nitrates and nitrites in your jerky altogether, your best bet is to check the ingredients for any concentrated form of them, whether from celery or sodium nitrite.

Processed meats such as jerky have also been classified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as something that causes cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. For every 50 grams (a little less than 2 ounces) of processed meat eaten daily, they estimate an 18 percent increase in the risk of colorectal cancer. While nitrates and nitrites in these meats are part of the problem, smoking and cooking meat generates an alphabet soup of other potentially carcinogenic compounds, such as N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

Yet another issue with jerky and other processed meats is they are generally very high in sodium. Most brands of jerky come in at around 400 mg sodium per once ounce serving, but I have seen some with as little as 250 mg and as much as 720 mg per ounce. To put that in perspective, one ounce of Lay’s potato chips has 170 mg of sodium.

As with anything, it is key to remember the all-important adage “the dose makes the poison.” Based on these factors, it is best not to eat jerky, or any type of processed meat, regularly.

Still, on occasion, jerky can be a reasonably good food option. It is indeed high in protein, it is made with lean meat, and it is likely better for you than many other sugary, trans-fat laden packaged convenience foods you might otherwise reach for. When choosing jerky, check the ingredient list and choose one that does not use concentrated nitrates (from celery extracts and powders or sodium nitrite) and opt for a brand with lower sodium levels. Even better, instead of beef or pork varieties, go for one of the many non-red meat jerky options available, such as turkey, chicken or salmon. Also keep in mind the many more healthful, convenient protein-packed options for everyday on-the-go eating such as nuts and seeds, Greek yogurt, hard boiled eggs, and dried bean snacks.