But there’s no reason jerky should only be a gas station snack. When you need metabolism-revving, hunger-satisfying protein after a workout—or just a healthy snack on the road—beef jerky is a great go-to. The drying process is beneficial in two ways: it requires getting rid of excess fat (as it could go bad without refrigeration) so you’re left with a low-fat product, and the water lost concentrates the protein in the meat to nearly double its amount in the same portion of uncured meat. As the all-natural, grass-fed beef trend converges with the emerging artisanal product market, athletes, and health-conscious snackers are turning to jerky as a satiating alternative to munchies like chips or bars without being restricted to additive-laden gas station products.

To separate themselves from the jerkies of the past, many brands claim they don’t contain added nitrites or MSG, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the jerky is nitrite- or MSG-free.

Cured meats contain sodium nitrates and nitrites to make the meat look appealing, preserve it, and keep it free of harmful bacteria. Natural sources like celery powder can also be used and still allow a product to claim “All Natural” as well as “No Nitrites Added.” Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, explains, “Whether it’s the synthetic version or from celery powder, it’s basically the same thing.” She also explained there’s still no verdict on whether nitrites are harmful or safe. In this case, we prefer the undebated alternative: instead of chemical or naturally-occurring nitrites, jerky can simply be cured with just salt and vinegar.

The issue with MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a bit different. Because glutamate is an amino acid, it is found naturally in many foods—cured meats, tomatoes, or fermented foods—and it is what contributes that “umami” or “savory” taste. When a bag says, “No MSG added,” it means there’s no monosodium glutamate, but there can still be ingredients that contain glutamate—hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, and soy sauce—and will have the same effects as MSG. What are those effects exactly? According to a study published in BMC Neuroscience, glutamate activates taste bud cells that release the “happy” hormone serotonin, so when you eat MSG or any glutamate-containing food, that feel-good feeling increases your desire to continue eating. When food scientists add it to your chicken nuggets or Doritos, they’re hacking MSG’s brain-signalling properties that would typically tell your body you’re eating a healthy protein. Instead, you’re eating highly-processed junk.

If the naturally-glutamate-rich food is a high-protein, nutritionally-sound piece of jerky, the effects aren’t as disastrous. However, the adage still stands: too much of anything is a bad thing. Moskovitz reiterates, “While a food product labeled MSG-free may still contain free glutamate, as long as you’re eating it in small portions it should not pose any harm.”

HOW WE RANKED IT: When we looked at nutritionals, to earn a spot on the best list we wanted to see jerky lower than or equal to 400 mg of sodium and 5 grams of sugar. Because all jerky is typically rich in protein, protein levels were not as much of a deciding factor (unless it otherwise came to a tie) as the source of that protein: the beef. Jerkies were awarded points for using grass-fed, organic, and hormone-free varieties because they have five times as much heart-healthy omega-3s and twice as much anti-inflammatory conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef.

Jerkies with nitrites either from celery or chemicals were given deductions, as was the case with MSG. While the glutamate in monosodium glutamate might be indistinguishable from that in soy sauce, we preferred seeing jerky flavored with naturally-occuring glutamate as well as spices like metabolism-boostingcayenne pepper rather than just MSG.

FIRST…THE WORST for your gluten free beef jerky.

Three Jerks Jerky Filet Mignon Beef Jerky, Original

Jerky ranked Three Jerks Jerky

Nutrition: 100 calories, 3 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 370 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 12 g protein

Ingredients: filet mignon, tamari soy sauce (water, soybeans, salt, alcohol, rice vinegar, lactic acid), worcestershire sauce (distilled white vinegar, molasses, cane sugar, water, salt, onions, anchovies, garlic, cloves, tamarind extract, natural flavorings, chili pepper extract), evaporated cane sugar, natural hickory smoke flavor, garlic powder, onion powder, spices, cayenne pepper

You no longer have to go to a five-star restaurant to get your filet mignon fix. Just pick up a bag of Three Jerks Jerky! This artisanal jerky is made without artificial ingredients and boasts one of the highest amounts of protein. The only issue is that it’s a little high in the sugar department, which is why we had to knock it back compared to its low-sugar peers. We’re also moderately skeptical of their use of “natural flavorings” and “spices,” which can be used to cover up the use of MSG.

5

Chef’s Cut Real Steak Jerky, Original Recipe

Jerky ranked Chefs Cut

Nutrition: 100 calories, 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 12 g protein

Ingredients: beef, soy sauce (water, vinegar, salt, hydrolyzed corn and soy protein, caramel color, lactic acid), sugar, worcestershire sauce (distilled white vinegar, molasses, sugar, water, salt, onions, anchovies, garlic, cloves, tamarind extract, natural flavorings, chili pepper extract), horseradish (horseradish roots, vinegar, salt and mustard oil), liquid smoke (water, natural hickory smoke flavor, vinegar, molasses, caramel color and salt), celery powder, sea salt, black pepper, red pepper

Yes, this jerky is high in protein and low in fat, but we’re calling Chef’s Cut’s bluff when they claim they use “only the finest real ingredients – just like you would find at your favorite steak house.” We’re not sure you’d find hydrolyzed corn and soy protein (MSG) or caramel color—which can carry a possible carcinogen, 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI), that forms during the manufacturing of some kinds of caramel color—at your steak house or your kitchen. And if you’re steering clear of nitrites, heads up. This jerky contains nitrite-containing celery powder.

4

Oberto Original Beef Jerky

Jerky ranked Oberto

Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 410 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 13 g protein

Ingredients: beef, sugar, water, salt beef stock, spices and natural flavorings, natural smoke flavor, vinegar

It’s a fairly simple ingredient list for one of the largest name brand jerkies, but we’re not completely sold. “No MSG” only means they didn’t add monosodium glutamate, but it’s been known to hide in “spices,” “natural flavoring,” and even “natural smoke flavor.” Besides their sneakiness, we could really only ding them for their high sodium levels and obscure source of “beef.” Other than that, Oberto jerky has the second highest amount of protein of the bunch.

2

Krave Original Sea Salt

Jerky ranked Krave

Nutrition: 100 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 340 mg sodium, 11 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 9 g protein

Ingredients: Beef, Cane Sugar, Gluten Free Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol), Honey, Contains 2% or Less of the Following: Sea Salt, Granulated Garlic, Onion Powder, Paprika, Spices.

Yes, Krave’s jerky is made with an impressive list of all-natural, minimally-processed ingredients, but this tiny one-ounce serving has a whopping 10 grams of sugar in it. A third of every gram of jerky is sugar. For comparison, a fifth of each gram of a glazed Krispy Kreme donut is sugar.

AND THE #1 WORST GLUTEN FREE BEEF JERKY IS…

1

Matador Original Beef Jerky

Jerky ranked Matador

Nutrition: 80 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 670 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 11 g protein

Ingredients: beef, sugar, salt, brown sugar, flavorings, natural smoke flavor (natural smoke flavor, maltodextrin), monosodium glutamate, water, citric acid, sodium erythorbate, sodium nitrite

This Matador certainly raises some red flags (pun intended). For starters, it has upwards of 700 milligrams of blood-pressure-raising sodium, which is more than four times what you’d find in the same serving of chips. It’s also one of the only brands that uses MSG and not much else to flavor it besides smoke flavoring and sugar. And finally, this is the only jerky that contains purified nitrites. Under conditions of high heat or stomach acid, sodium nitrite reacts with amines to form cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Luckily, this reaction can be hindered by the addition of citric acid, which Matador includes in its recipe. Also, because jerky isn’t cooked like nitrite-containing bacon and hot dogs are, the risk of forming these carcinogens is lower.

AND NOW… THE BEST GLUTEN FREE BEEF AND POULTRY JERKY

Jerky ranked Country Archer

Nutrition: 70 calories, 1 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 280 mg sodium, 4 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 4 g sugar, 7 g protein

Ingredients: Grass Fed Beef, Gluten Free Tamari Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, May also contain Alcohol and Sugar), Organic Brown Sugar (Organic Sugar, Organic Molasses), Garlic, Pineapple Juice, Liquid Smoke (Water, Natural Hickory Smoke Flavor), Organic Worcestershire (Water, Organic Vinegar, Organic Gluten Free Tamari [Water, Organic Soybeans, Salt], Organic Evaporated Cane Syrup, Salt, Organic Spices), Black Pepper

We love Country Archer’s commitment to supporting local farms and using local ingredients when they can. It ensures that the jerky is made with fresh ingredients and not health-harming preservatives or artificial additives. It’s low in sugar and sodium, but unfortunately, it’s also low in muscle-building protein.

Jerky ranked Nicks Jerky

Nutrition: 70 calories, 1.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 250 mg sodium, 5 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 9 g protein

Ingredients: grass-fed and finished beef, soy sauce (water, soybeans, salt, alcohol), brown sugar, lemon juice, black pepper, granulated garlic

Nick’s Sticks, or in this case, Nick’s Jerky is made with a short, simple list of ingredients for a clean, healthy piece of jerky. It might be nearly identical in nutritionals to the jerky above it, but we ranked it higher because Nick uses 100% grass-fed beef and Country Archer only uses extra-lean USDA-inspected beef that typically has saturated fat levels 3-4 times higher than grass-fed beef because of the filling corn feed.

Jerky ranked Field Trip

Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 4 g carbs, 1 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 14 g protein

Ingredients: Top Round Beef, Gluten Free Reduced Sodium Soy Sauce (Water, soybeans, salt, alcohol), Apple Juice, Brown Sugar, Pineapple Juice, Water, Natural Hickory Liquid Smoke, Rice Wine, Black Pepper, Granulated Garlic, Red Wine Vinegar, Ginger, White Pepper, Granulated Onion

Field Trip was founded by three guys who were fed up with the fact that fitness programs claimed beef jerky was a good snack, but the only options were those with processed meats and chemicals. The result is the highest protein beef jerky of the bunch made from top round beef, no preservatives, no artificial ingredients, and no MSG. They even use creative ways to sweeten the meat, like using pineapple juice and apple juice rather than used refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup.

Jerky ranked The New Primal

Nutrition: 90 calories, 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 240 mg sodium, 5 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 12 g protein

Ingredients: Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished Beef, Pineapple Juice, Coconut Aminos, Honey, Lemon Juice, Apple Cider Vinegar, Less than 2% of: Smoked Sea Salt, Garlic, Onion, White Pepper, Smoked Paprika, Ginger, Black Pepper

Low in sodium and sugar, and packed with protein, this beef jerky might raise an eyebrow with its high fat levels. Don’t be alarmed. Because The New Primal uses grass-fed beef, that fat is full of healthy omega-3s and CLA. CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, isn’t as present in grain-fed cattle because the CLA comes directly from the grass. This fatty acid contains a group of chemicals that provide a wide variety of health benefits, including improved blood sugar regulation, maintenance of lean body mass and reduced body fat.

Jerky ranked Think Jerky

Nutrition: 66 calories, 1.3 g fat (0.3 g saturated fat), 224 mg sodium, 2.6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 2.6 g sugar, 10.5 g protein

Ingredients: Grass-Fed Beef, Water, Cane Sugar, Raspberry Juice Concentrate (Red Raspberries), Sea Salt, Smoked Chipotle Pepper Powder, Ancho Chili Pepper Powder, Smoked Paprika, Black Pepper, Cayenne Pepper

Joshua Buchbinder, M.S. and Fitness Manager at 24 Hour Fitness Super Sport in Aurora, Colorado says that he enjoys snacking on some beef jerky after a long, high-intensity workout, “The proteinin the jerky aids muscle repair and provides a good deal of salt, an electrolyte lost through sweat that reduces soreness and speeds recovery.” It’s even better when that protein is 100% grass-fed and finished like this Think Jerky is.

AND THE #1 BEST BEEF JERKY IS…

Jerky ranked Brooklyn Biltong

Nutrition: 70 calories, 2 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 390 mg sodium, 0 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 12 g protein

Ingredients: Beef and Marinade (Marinade: Apple Cider Vinegar, Water, Sea Salt, Coriander, Black Pepper, and Allspice)

Biltong is a jerky that has a specific recipe: It’s dipped in a vinegar marinade, sprinkled with coriander and other spices, and then air dried for 3-6 days. The process is just as simple as its ingredients, resulting in a piece of beef that’s more tender than jerky and certainly very healthy.

Gluten Free TERIYAKI Beef Jerky

Country Archer Teriyaki Beef Jerky

Jerky ranked COUNTRY ARCHER TERIYAKI BEEF JERKY

Nutrition: 50 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 240 mg sodium, 5 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 5 g sugar, 6 g protein

Ingredients: Grass Fed Beef, Organic Brown Sugar (Organic Sugar, Organic Molasses), Gluten Free Tamari Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, May also contain Alcohol and Sugar), Organic Seasoned Rice Vinegar Dressing (Organic Rice Vinegar, Organic Sugar, Water, Salt), Water, Pineapple Juice, Garlic, Organic Worcestershire (Water, Organic Vinegar, Organic Gluten Free Tamari [Water, Organic Soybeans, Salt], Organic Evaporated Cane Syrup, Salt, Organic Spices), Black Pepper, Ginger

Teriyaki refers to an ancient Japanese method of grilling meat, and usually includes soy sauce, brown sugar, sake, and ginger. It should not include fructose or 5 versions of MSG (hydrolyzed corn protein, monosodium glutamate, modified food starch, “flavorings,” and disodium inosinate) as it does in Matador’s version. For a more traditional taste and less sodium, go with a preservative-free brand like Country Archer, and if you’re in need of a quick fix, gas-station-brand Oberto will fit the bill.

Gluten Free BARBEQUE Beef Jerky

 Jack Link’s KC Masterpiece Beef Jerky

Jerky ranked jacks link bbq

Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 430 mg sodium, 7 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 11 g protein

Ingredients: beef, water, brown sugar, sugar, less than 2% KC Masterpiece® barbecue sauce [tomato puree (water, tomato paste), high fructose corn syrup, molasses, vinegar, less than 2% spices, natural hickory smoke flavor, natural flavors, modified food starch, salt, xanthan gum, dried onion, dried garlic, caramel color, turmeric, paprika extracts], salt, flavorings, tomato powder, natural hickory smoke flavor, citric acid

If you didn’t already know, barbeque sauce can have a surprising amount of added sugar, as demonstrated by Jack Link’s KC Masterpiece beef jerky. While not unreasonably high, it still has 5 grams more than what you’re getting with Uncle Andy’s BBQ, and those 5 grams contain belly-busting high fructose corn syrup. Uncle Andy’s gives you all the flavors of BBQ without the sugar because they use a Memphis-style blend of natural spices that starts off sweet but finishes with a cayenne kick.

SPICY

EAT THIS! The New Primal Spicy Beef Jerky

Jerky ranked spicy primal

Nutrition: 90 calories, 2.5 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 250 mg sodium, 5 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 3 g sugar, 12 g protein

Ingredients: Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished Beef, Pineapple Juice, Coconut Aminos, Honey, Lemon Juice, Apple Cider Vinegar, Jalapeno Peppers, Cayenne, Smoked Sea Salt, Garlic, Onion, White Pepper, Smoked Paprika, Ginger, Black Pepper

NOT THAT! Krave Sweet Chipotle Beef Jerky

Jerky ranked krave sweet chipotle

Nutrition: 90 calories, 1.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 350 mg sodium, 12 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 11 g sugar, 8 g protein

Ingredients: Beef, Cane Sugar, Gluten Free Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol), Honey. Contains 2% or Less of the Following: Garlic Powder, Paprika, Chipotle, Spices (including Celery Seed), White Vinegar, Citric Acid

You’d think that spicy jerky would be all heat, right? Wrong. When it comes to Krave’s sweet chipotle beef jerky, the emphasis is certainly on the “sweet.” This meat has some of the highest levels of sugar in all jerky products. It’s as if you’re eating two milano cookies, some of the Worst Cookies in America. When you want to go spicy, go all the way with The New Primal’s jerky. It’s gluten-free, uses omega-3-rich grass-fed beef, and is teeming with metabolism-boosting spices like paprika, cayenne, and jalapeno peppers.

Gluten Free POULTRY Jerky [Chicken, turkey and the like]

Jerky ranked epic chicken

Nutrition: 90 calories, 2.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated fat), 290 mg sodium, 8 g carbs, <1 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 9 g protein

Ingredients: natural chicken, organic currants, sea salt, garlic, onion, sesame seeds, sesame oil, ginger, black pepper, red pepper flakes, red pepper

Jerky ranked lorissa teriyaki

Nutrition: 80 calories, 1 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 400 mg sodium, 6 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 6 g sugar, 11 g protein

Ingredients: chicken breast, brown sugar, cane sugar, tamari soy sauce (water, soybeans, salt, sugar), chicken broth, water, less than 2%: salted sake (water, rice, salt), sesame seeds, sea salt, ginger, garlic powder, natural flavor, pineapple juice

Jerky ranked krave lemon turkey

Nutrition: 90 calories, 0.5 g fat (0 g saturated fat), 350 mg sodium, 10 g carbs, 0 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 10 g protein

Ingredients: Turkey Breast, Cane Sugar, Gluten Free Soy Sauce (Water, Soybeans, Salt, Alcohol). Contains 2% or Less of the Following: Lemon Juice, Granulated Garlic, Spice.

Most poultry jerkies are even lower in fat than beef or pork because of their naturally low levels of fat, making them a great option if you’re steering clear of fat. Although every one of these brands is using all natural, simple ingredients, you can’t overlook the sugar levels of Krave’s Turkey Jerky. When picking poultry, go for the bloat-banishing bites from Lorissa’s Kitchen, the Ginger Teriyaki Chicken, or the sweet and spicy barbeque pieces from Epic, the Currant & Sesame BBQ Chicken Jerky.