5 Tasty (and Healthy!) Jerkies and 4 to Avoid
Last Updated: Feb 26, 2016
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The Paleo movement has redefined jerky, helping it move from a gas-station snack full of chemicals and preservatives to an artisanal, protein-rich treat. But not all "healthy" jerkies are created equal: In the pursuit of finding quality ingredients with excellent flavor and texture, I reviewed nine types: I tested only grass-fed meat, organic poultry and wild fish, as these are staples for healthy animal products. And I stuck with brands that are available in grocery stores, rather than online only, for the sake of accessibility. None have preservative ingredients and things I tried to avoid included: High sugar content, gluten (in animal jerkies, not vegetarian), high sodium content, questionable/non-food ingredients and GMO soy. Read on to find out which jerkies to add to your grocery list!
BEST: KOOEE! SUPER SNACKS LIME PEPPER WITH MANGO JERKY TRAIL MIX
This jerky is my top health pick for several reasons: It has no sweeteners of any type, no soy (coconut aminos instead), no gluten and no MSG. It’s my top overall pick, too, because it comes with a side of trail mix that’s both simple and scrumptious, comprised of unsweetened fruits, seeds and nuts. Rather than dried meat only, it’s a complex snack with multiple textures and flavor profiles, making it more like a quick meal than a small nibble. I love that the trail mix had no added ingredients. The lemon-pepper flavor of the jerky is prominent, and because it’s supposed to be on the sour side, I didn’t miss the sweetness. There’s also dried mango and goji berries to compensate for the lack of sugar or honey. RECOMMENDATION: If there is one jerky I’d recommend from this whole batch, this one is definitely it. Props for upping the game on healthy jerky. This is where the bar should be set.
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BEST: WHOLE FOODS ORGANIC PEPPERED TURKEY JERKY
This jerky is all too easy to eat a ton of! It’s soft, sweet, peppery and smoky. All ingredients are organic, so there are no GMO concerns with the sugar and soy sauce. It does contain organic caramel coloring, which is definitely not awesome, but it’s a small price to pay for the fact that it’s fully organic, inexpensive and delicious. It doesn’t specify gluten-free, but the soy sauce listed in the ingredients does not contain wheat. RECOMMENDATION: For those who want the concentrated protein of a jerky but don’t necessarily love the taste of beef or bison, it’s an ideal pick.
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BEST: PRIMAL STRIP TEXAS BBQ SOY JERKY
This is the best vegan option. Comparable in protein to the animal jerkies (though higher in carbs) at 10 grams per ounce, both the taste and texture is quite good. It’s mild in spice, but smoky, sweet and savory. While I’m not generally into soy, I’m impressed with this jerky both for taste and ingredients. It’s fully non-GMO, gluten-free and specifies that no MSG is added. Sodium at 383 milligrams per serving is on the high end, but that’s really the only negative, presuming you don’t consider soy itself to be a negative, of course. Since it’s a little wet, eating it directly out of the package is the way to go. RECOMMENDATION: If you’re vegan and seeking a high-protein snack that’s moderate in carbs, it’s a good choice.
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BEST: HOMEGROWN MEATS TANGY ORANGE TERIYAKI
The orange flavor in this jerky comes from orange extract and shines through brightly, adding a lightness and an interesting character to this otherwise heavy snack. The soy sauce is gluten-free, but neither that nor the sugar specify non-GMO. It has no natural flavorings, not even smoke flavor, yet is one of the tastiest of all. The beef used is both grass-fed and grass-finished, which is wonderful, and it had the most unique taste of those tested. RECOMMENDATION: For people who have already been eating jerky and might want to try something new, the orange aspect of this makes it a solid find.
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BEST: THE NEW PRIMAL SPICY BEEF JERKY
This is the best soy-free choice. Grass-fed and finished, the main standout to this jerky is that it contains healthy coconut aminos instead of soy sauce. It also contains fruit juice and honey instead of sugar, and the sugar content is on the lower end at three grams per ounce. It has great spice and no gluten or potential GMOs. And while the texture is a little tough, it’s not enough to be a problem. RECOMMENDATION: If you’re searching for a Paleo-friendly jerky, this is an excellent option. It’s not a standout in terms of exciting flavor, but it’s good for a basic, on-the-go snack with only clean ingredients.
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WORST: LAWLESS JERKY ALOHA TERIYAKI BEEF
While I appreciate that the beef is 100-percent grass-fed and the soy sauce used is gluten-free, I found it very hard to chew and not all that great-tasting. The ginger, garlic and sesame flavors were quite mild. It has six grams of sugar, putting it at the high end of the spectrum for the jerkies I tested, and neither the sugar nor the soy specify non-GMO. There are no added flavorings of any sort — not even smoke flavoring, which most jerkies have. Sodium content at 400 milligrams per serving was the highest of all reviewed. RECOMMENDATION: The package claims, “So good, it should be illegal.” I found it a misdemeanor at best.
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WORST: TRADER JOE’S SWEET & SPICY BUFFALO JERKY
Generally, I don’t enjoy buffalo products because I find the taste too gamy. This jerky really surprised me! It’s indeed sweet and spicy and also quite easy to chew. It does contain sugar, which was possibly GMO, as well as soy sauce that may be GMO. Additionally, it contains “flavorings,” with no specification as to what those are — meaning that it might contain MSG and that the soy sauce is not gluten-free. RECOMMENDATION: When you want a high-protein snack, you could do better.
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WORST: PRIMAL STRIPS THAI PEANUT VEGAN JERKY
This jerky is the opposite of gluten-free — it’s made with a base of seitan (aka wheat gluten). I’m usually a sucker for anything Thai-peanut flavored, but Primal Strips lost me here. The jerky tasted like maybe it went bad, though it smelled fine, so I assume that’s just how it is. The texture is OK, but not meaty like the soy version. It’s non-GMO, moderate in sugar and on the higher end of sodium at 353 milligrams per ounce. With how delicious their soy version is, I was taken aback at the unpleasant nature of this one. RECOMMENDATION: If you’re vegan, I definitely recommend the soy option instead.
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WORST: WHOLE FOODS SOUTHWEST ADOBO SALMON JERKY
I’m a huge fan of seafood, and smoked salmon is one of my favorite foods. I eat sushi regularly — even “fishy” fish like mackerel. That said, this was far too fishy for my preference. I couldn’t get past the stale, old-fish flavor to even notice whether or not it was adobo-ish. It was the highest in protein of all tested jerkies, weighing in at 14 grams per ounce, which is, of course, a huge positive, but it also contains questionable ingredients, such as yeast extract (aka MSG), multiple gums and caramel color (not organic) and doesn’t mention non-GMO for the soy or sugar. I had such high hopes for this, given how much I enjoyed Whole Foods’ turkey jerky, but was sorely disappointed. RECOMMENDATION: Avoid, unless you’re a cat.
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