Whether you're in need of a snack to chew on while watching a movie or you're on a road trip and need to stock up on food at the gas station, beef jerky is an absolute must-have. Beef jerky is a much-loved snack food in the United States, yet how it's made and what it's made up of isn't as widely known as its signature salty, meaty flavor. So, what is beef jerky? And is it healthy to eat? That's what we're here to find out. 

The Origins of Jerky

The origins of jerky trace all the way back to ancient Egypt. It was developed as a means of preserving animal meat that was too big to be eaten in a short amount of time. This method of preserving food was also used by Native Americans and in  many African countries. Jerky was popular because it's nutrient-dense and lightweight, and was easy for our ancestors to carry around or take on long journeys. 

#SpoonTip: The word "jerky" is derived from the Quechuan word "Ch'arki," which is the language of the Incan empire in pre-Columbian America

How Beef Jerky Is Made

Ready to broil...

arnold | inuyaki on Flickr

The main ingredients in beef jerky are actually quite obvious and simple. Beef jerky usually only contains beef, salt, sugar, and other seasonings or spices. The process of making beef jerky starts with slicing large cuts of meat into smaller strips. Then, the meat is marinated in seasonings for a long period of time.

Although some types of jerky can be made by air-drying them in the open air or by sunlight, the USDA recommends that beef should be dried by some kind of heat source, like an oven or a food dehydrator. Otherwise, beef jerky can easily become contaminated with bacteria, fungi, or even insects. Mass-produced beef jerky is usually dried by being placed on a metal rack in a smokehouse in which wood chips are burned to smoke the meat, slow-cooking it at a low temperature. After it's been cooked in the smokehouse, beef jerky is ready to be packaged and eaten.

Is Beef Jerky Healthy?

Lauren Kruchten

The answer to this question is kind of ambiguous because it depends on how you define healthy. On the one hand, beef jerky can be a good snack for a workout because it's high in protein, weighing in at 9.4 grams of protein in a 1-ounce serving of beef jerky. In addition, beef jerky is a relatively low-calorie snack given the huge amount of protein that it contains.

However, beef jerky contains a high amount of sodium. 1 ounce of beef jerky can have upwards of 450mg of sodium–or almost one-fifth of a person's recommended daily sodium intake. 1 ounce of beef jerky also holds 3.1 grams of saturated fat and 13 milligrams of cholesterol, both which may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and heart illnesses. 

At the end of the day, maintaining a healthy diet depends upon moderation. It's not worth eating a bag of beef jerky every single day, but it doesn't hurt to enjoy a strip of beef jerky if you just finished a workout or if you're craving a small snack on the go. So, what is beef jerky? The short answer is that beef jerky's a dried meat snack that is dense in protein and high in sodium. It's a delicious, savory treat for road trips and get-togethers.