Article Thumbnail

What’s in This?: Beef Jerky

All 13 ingredients in these moist meat chips, explained (yep, even hydrolyzed corn protein)

We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.

This edition: Jack Link’s Original Beef Jerky, which is made from 13 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear online.

The Ingredients

1) Beef: This can be found inside of cows. Jerky is often made with particularly lean cuts of beef, which produce a strong flavor and somewhat chewy texture. The only real requirement for making this kind of jerky is simply dehydrating strips of beef, which often involves utilizing a low-temperature drying method, like smoking, and adding salt to inhibit bacterial growth. As you can see from this lengthy ingredients list, however, Jack Link’s also applies a marinade to their beef jerky.

As for whether this beef is any good, the packaging claims, “Made with premium beef.” In 2016, Jack Link’s also acquired a division of Grass Run Farms, a group of family farms committed to producing 100-percent grass-fed meat products, in an effort to entice more responsible consumers. However, none of this necessarily means Jack Link’s is using high-quality beef to make their beef jerky. In fact, thanks to the incredibly secretive and often devious American meat industry, figuring out where exactly any kind of meat comes from is near impossible.

2) Water: That stuff in lakes, rivers and ponds. Why water appears on this ingredients list, however, is something of a mystery. It could serve as a base for the marinade, or maybe they add it to the meat during processing to make it easier to work with. Whatever the case, I don’t see any reason to be concerned about a little water (assuming it’s not raw, of course).

3) Sugar: This is a common, albeit notorious, ingredient in highly-processed jerky. It might serve to sweeten up the marinade, but sugar can also tenderize meat, which is probably the main reason for it being here. One serving of this beef jerky (a laughable ounce, just a third of a small bag) contains six grams of sugar, which can certainly add up — going by these numbers, that one small bag of Jack Link’s beef jerky boasts a whole 18 grams of sugar.

To put that into perspective, the American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 36(ish) grams and that women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day. Of course, too much sugar is terrible for you. A sugar-laden diet is associated with all kinds of ailments, from heart disease to depression

4) Brown Sugar: Brown sugar and white sugar are often used interchangeably. There are two main benefits that come along with using brown sugar, though: It’s naturally moist and can impart a darker color on the final product, both of which might be beneficial when making beef jerky.

5) Salt: Again, this is a jerky-making staple. Not only does it dehydrate the meat, it also prevents bacterial growth, which is essential when creating a meat product that can live outside of the refrigerator for long periods of time.

Unfortunately, this beef jerky contains an exorbitant amount of salt, which is seriously bad for your health. One small bag contains 1,380 milligrams, which is more than halfway to what the American Heart Association recommends per day.

6) Beef Stock: This adds big-time flavor and is made by simmering various parts of a cow (including the bones) in a mixture of spices and water.

7) Flavors: Similar to “spices,” another ingredient that ends up on labels without much explanation, this is a purposefully vague term that can be used to help companies protect their recipes. These flavors could be natural or artificial, but there’s no real way for us to know.

8) Soy Sauce (Wheat, Soybeans and Salt): This is another large dose of flavor and sodium often added to meat marinades. Besides the high sodium content, soy sauce is generally a safe ingredient, but if you want to learn more about it, check out our soy sauce entry of this column. 

9) Hydrolyzed Corn Protein: This is a protein acquired by the chemical breakdown of corn, and it acts as a flavor enhancer thanks to its high sodium content. This ingredient also contains high levels of MSG (more on that here), which is a shame, since Jack Link’s specifically claims that their beef jerky has “no added MSG.” 

10) Yeast Extract: Also known as autolyzed yeast, yeast extract results when yeast is broken down into its individual components, which once again, include the flavor enhancer MSG (c’mon, Jack Link’s). Because MSG is a natural component of autolyzed yeast, it doesn’t have to be listed separately on the ingredients lists, which is how the company can get away with saying their jerky has “no added MSG.” Basically, watch out for this ingredient if you’re sensitive to MSG.

11) Maltodextrin: An artificial sugar made from maltose (aka malt sugar) and dextrose (a sugar derived from starches), maltodextrin is usually used as a thickener or filler ingredient to add bulk to processed food and to increase its shelf life. Maltodextrin itself has a shelf life of two years.

12) Citric Acid: Citric acid naturally occurs in citrus fruits; it’s often added to foods to extend their shelf life.

13) Pineapple Powder: This is quite literally dried pineapple dust, and it probably adds more sweetness to the marinade.

The Takeaway

My biggest issue with this jerky is that it clearly contains MSG, even though Jack Link’s claims it doesn’t. MSG can be a problematic ingredient for several reasons, including its ability to promote headaches, but the fact that the claims being made are so misleading makes me question the integrity of pretty much everything else in this jerky.

All of which is to say, I’ll fulfill my jerky needs elsewhere.