Homemade Jerky: A Nutritious and Convenient Snack

July 15th, 2010

Snacking is a convenient way to suppress appetite and obtain nutrients between meals, but most snack foods are highly processed and full of sugar. The difficulty in finding a healthy and appealing snack food is a challenge that can easily ruin an otherwise healthy diet. Because of its nutritional value, convenience, and great taste, beef jerky is an excellent snack that can help to solve this problem, but as with most foods, there are a number of factors to consider in regard to quality and health.

Jerky is a Traditional and Historic Whole Food

For the most part, jerky is simply dried meat. Although there’s a considerable amount of controversy surrounding the healthfulness of meat, evidence suggests that it was a significant part of our pre-agricultural diet,1 and the sound reasoning of the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis suggests that it was also a critical factor in our evolution, particularly in regard to our dramatic increase in brain capacity.2,3 Given the hot and dry climate that humans are believed to have emerged from, it’s believed that witnessing the natural drying of meat under the sun may have provoked early humans to rely on drying as a method of preserving meat. Unfortunately, this is very difficult for archaeologists to prove,4 but it’s well known that many indigenous cultures have long relied on drying to preserve meat.5

The ability to store dried meat allowed indigenous humans, particularly those such as the Eskimos and Native American Indians who subsisted primarily on animal meat, to avoid starvation during shortages of wild game.6 Although food shortages are now much less of a concern in most areas of the world, jerky still offers a lot of value by providing the nutritional quality of a whole food in a convenient and long lasting form.

Despite not always being recognized as such, meat is a good source of vitamins and minerals, particularly iron, zinc, and the B vitamins.7 Although the dehydration process used to prepare jerky is likely to reduce the content of some B vitamins,8 jerky is still likely to be much more nutritious than most processed snack foods and is also an excellent snack choice for anyone looking to consume more protein or less carbohydrate.

Why You Should Consider Making Your Own Jerky

The jerky that’s commonly available at most grocery stores is likely to be made from the lesser quality meat of animals that have been raised inappropriately under industrial farming conditions. This type of jerky is also likely to contain potentially harmful additives such as refined sugar or MSG. Making your own jerky is easy to do, and most importantly, it gives you control of meat quality, ingredient selection, and the temperature and duration used for dehydration. If you still prefer to buy jerky instead of making it yourself, U.S. Wellness Meats makes theirs with high quality pasture raised meat, and they offer it plain without any additives other than natural Celtic sea salt. However, good quality jerky is typically expensive which is another convincing reason to make it yourself.

Although the prospect of making your own jerky might seem difficult and laborious, it’s actually quite easy. You can even dehydrate the meat in your oven, but if you’d prefer to use a lower temperature than what your oven can accommodate, an electric dehydrator is a better option. Dehydrators also tend to use less electricity than ovens and are relatively inexpensive. Although people who dry a lot of foods tend to prefer Excalibur dehydrators, I use the less expensive Nesco American Harvest dehydrator which has worked well for me.

Selecting Quality Meat for Jerky

It should go without saying that the nutritional quality of jerky is dependent upon the quality of the meat used to make it. For this reason, it’s best to choose pasture raised meat in favor of the meat typically sold at grocery stores. The latter is more likely to have been mass produced, be of poorer nutritional quality,9,10 and contain potentially harmful chemical residues.11 High quality meat can be purchased from a trustworthy local farmer or online from U.S. Wellness Meats or Blackwing Quality Meats. Two excellent resources for finding local farmers are EatWild.com and LocalHarvest.org.

Considerations Regarding Fat

Dehydration is an effective way to preserve meat because it minimizes bacterial growth.12 However, lipid oxidation is another significant cause of meat rancidity and occurs during heating and storage.13,14,34,35 For this reason, it’s generally recommended to make jerky from lean cuts of meat. In addition, oxidized lipids act as free radicals that can cause cellular damage and have been associated with heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, arthritis, and accelerated aging.15-18,35,41 Of course, there’s also the concern surrounding saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease, but saturated fat is necessary for good health,40 and the association between heart disease and natural dietary sources of fat and cholesterol has been convincingly scrutinized.36-39 Furthermore, saturated fat is much more resistant to oxidation.14,20

Despite the concerns regarding free radicals, they’re a natural part of every day life. They’re produced within the body during a variety of normal physiological functions including routine energy production.17-20,35 They can be generated in even greater quantities during exercise21 and are even produced for advantageous purposes such as immune function.18,20,22,33 As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that the body can naturally defend itself against free radical damage. This defense occurs primarily through the utilization of antioxidants such as glutathione and vitamins C and E,15-18,20-23,35 all of which should be obtainable in adequate amounts from a healthy diet based on natural whole foods.

Although it depends on the temperature and duration, it’s arguable that dehydrating meat doesn’t cause any more lipid oxidation than regular cooking. Either way, given that it’s impractical to completely avoid lipid oxidation, a more realistic and balanced approach to reducing the potential of health implications is to avoid the use of high cooking temperatures and reduce storage time as much as possible while also supporting the body’s natural defenses by regularly consuming whole foods. Based on this, I think it’s reasonable to make jerky with fattier meat as long as it will be refrigerated, consumed relatively quickly, and dehydrated at a relatively low temperature. In fact, dehydrated meat has been shown to be more resistant to lipid oxidation during storage than cooked or fresh meat providing it’s not dehydrated too much.14

Although jerky is most commonly made with beef, any type of meat or fish can be used. However, it should be taken into consideration that polyunsaturated fatty acids are much more susceptible to oxidation13,14,20 and that some meats contain more of it than others. For example, pork, chicken, and turkey tend to contain more polyunsaturated fat than beef and are therefore more susceptible to lipid oxidation.14,24 This variation can also depend on how an animal is raised and fed9,10,25 which is yet another reason to choose meat from pasture raised animals. The use of fish presents some concerns as well. Although fish is often regarded as a healthful source of essential fatty acids,26 these fatty acids are polyunsaturated which suggests that fish is perhaps a less desirable choice for jerky. Then again, indigenous Eskimos seemed to have fared quite well for many years despite their preference for rancid fish.6 As with animal meat, the quality of the fish is also an important consideration.

Making Jerky with Ground Meat

It can be preferable to use ground meat to make jerky because it’s easier to work with, produces jerky that tends to be more flavorful and easier to chew, and is typically the least expensive form of pasture raised meat. However, ground beef is more likely to be contaminated with pathogens due to increased exposure to grinding equipment and the combining of meat from different animals and different farms.27,28 For this reason, meat quality becomes even more important.

Outbreaks of food borne illness have been traced to both commercially produced and homemade jerky.29 However, 8 hours of drying at 145° F has been shown to reduce inoculated populations of E. coli in ground beef containing 5% and 20% fat to levels considered acceptable by the USDA.30 Despite this, the USDA still recommends preheating meat to 160° F and poultry to 165° F prior to dehydrating it.31 This may be worth considering since the thermostats of some electric dehydrators have been shown to be inaccurate.30

If you decide to make jerky with ground meat, I highly recommend using a jerky gun which makes it very easy to create strips of meat. If you’d like to use ground meat but are concerned about the increased risk of contamination, another option is to buy regular cuts of meat and grind it yourself.

Adding Flavor to Your Jerky

A significant part of what makes jerky an appealing snack is the combination of spices and marinades that add to its flavor. Although there’s nothing wrong with plain jerky, a bit of seasoning can make it a lot tastier. Spices such as garlic powder, onion powder, pepper, nutmeg, and ginger are all popular choices and are even believed to have impressive health benefits.

Soy sauce and worcestershire sauce are often used to add even more flavor, but it’s important to realize that sauces tend to be a hidden source of unhealthy ingredients. Soy itself has been associated with a number of undesirable health effects, and although the fermentation of soy sauce can make this much less of a concern, some brands are not fermented adequately.32 Similarly, the many ingredients typically found in worcestershire sauce take away from the natural simplicity of jerky. But because jerky is typically consumed as a snack, and because only small amounts of these sauces are needed to add flavor, there’s some room for compromise. Two sauces that I use, San-J Organic Wheat Free Tamari Soy Sauce and The Wizard’s Organic Worcestershire, appear to be of high enough quality to make this issues less of a concern.

For more information on drying and cooking methods, meat selection, equipment needs, and recipes relating to jerky, I recommend reading Jerky by A.D. Livingston.

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