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Posted on: September 20, 2018 at 3:09 pm

Currently, the paleo diet is a very popular diet trend. I’ve noticed more bone broths, collagens and a wide range of jerky-type snacks at numerous grocers. For many, grabbing a jerky stick is a quick nutritious protein-dense snack, and the varieties available have come a long way since the original Slim Jim brand I remember as a kid.

According to some recent research, there is concern about the chemicals in cured meats, contributing negatively to mental health and cancer. But before we go down that road, let’s take a look at what’s in jerky and what to avoid. (1, 2)

What is Jerky?

Jerky is a dried protein product, traditionally made from meat. Jerky products have expanded and now includes many varieties such as beef, venison, lamb, alligator, buffalo, alpaca, duck, kangaroo, ostrich, salmon, turkey, tuna, wild boar and yak to name a few. Many are regional favorites and some of the more exotic varieties may only be available to order online. (3)

While no one knows the exact origin of jerky, we do now that many native tribes had versions of dried meat, which allowed them to store food for an extended period of time. The Inca’s called it “Ch’arki” which literally translates into dried meat. Native Americans called their dried meat pemmican, which was a mixture of jerky meat, fruit and animal fat. While these versions were free of chemicals and additives, the same cannot be said of many commercially made jerky products. (4)

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What Kind of Jerky to Avoid

Many jerky brands are full of nasty ingredients such as artificial flavors, artificial colors, corn syrup, MSG, preservatives, sodium nitrate, and soy. There are many companies that offer a product without a laundry list of additives, preservatives, and artificial flavors. Which is why it is important to read the label of any processed or packaged food you purchase.

If you really want jerky and you have a dehydrator there are a plethora of recipes online for making your own jerky at home. This is really the healthiest scenario as you are in control of all of the ingredients used. (5)

Can Cured Foods Like Jerky Cause Cancer?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meat as carcinogenic, something that causes cancer. This is due in part to the addition of nitrates and nitrites which act as preservatives to prevent food from spoiling, they also add color to meats. When cooked, nitrites and nitrates change into by-products called N-nitroso compounds, such as nitrosamines and nitrosamides. N-nitroso compounds are associated with an increased risk of cancer. (6)

Researchers Link Processed Meats to Mental Health Issues

The John Hopkins Medicine study involved 1,101 individuals over a ten year period from 2007 to 2017 and the results were published in The Journal of Molecular Psychiatry in July 2018. (7)

Shocking Study Results

The study measured dietary exposures in a group of individuals with mania and other psychiatric disorders as well as in control individuals without a psychiatric disorder. Their findings indicate that a history of eating nitrates, chemicals that are used to cure meats such as jerky, hot dogs, salami and other processed meat foods was strongly and independently associated with the current mania of the participants.

What is mania? It is a state of abnormally elevated emotion that can last weeks or months. It can be characterized by insomnia, euphoria, intense anger or hyperactivity. This is generally seen in individuals with bipolar disorder but can occur with other disorders as well.

While the researchers looked for contributing factors such as a link between mental health illness and potential infectious disease, and different dietary exposures, it was cured meat products that stood out to researchers. Unexpectedly, amongst the people who had been hospitalized for mania, the history of eating cured meat before hospitalization were approximately 3.5 times higher than the group of people without a psychiatric disorder.

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Are Nitrates the Problem?

To further understand the association of nitrates, Dr. Yolken worked with additional researchers to test their theories on rats. They had two groups of rats, which were fed jerky every other day. One was fed nitrate free food, while the other test group was fed food with nitrates. Within two weeks, the rats fed nitrates showed erratic sleep patterns and became hyperactive. It also appears that nitrates alter the microbiome (the gut bacteria) of the rats. (7)

The Gut-Brain Connection

Researchers have proven that certain foods and altering the microbiome can trigger mania and other disorders that affect the brain.  According to lead author of the study, Robert Yolken, M.D., the Theodore and Vada Stanley Distinguished Professor of Neurovirology in Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, “Future work on this association could lead to dietary interventions to help reduce the risk of manic episodes in those who have bipolar disorder or who are otherwise vulnerable to mania.” (1, 8)

Dr. Yolken’s group also published results of a separate study showing that when individuals with bipolar disorder are given probiotics, the composition of gut bacteria changes. After a manic episode, they are less likely to be re-hospitalized in the following six months. “There’s growing evidence that germs in the intestines can influence the brain,” says Yolken. “And this work on nitrates opens the door for future studies on how that may be happening.” (8, 9)

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What Does this Mean for You?

It doesn’t mean that the average person will develop mania/mental health problems from eating cured meats/nitrates, nor does it mean people with mental illness have abnormal diets

It does mean that if you are a big fan of jerky or any food that contains nitrates, and you consume it regularly you may want to consider reducing your intake or making your own to avoid all of the necessary additives and health risk.

If you have bipolar disorder or other health challenges such as insomnia, digestive issues or depression you may want to reduce or eliminate your intake of foods containing nitrates.

Conclusion

  • Avoid foods with nitrates and nitrites which have been linked to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Always read labels on processed and packaged foods so you understand exactly what you are eating.
  • Some natural products may contain unhealthy ingredients such as nitrates. Moderation is key, especially for those with bipolar disorder and other health issues.
  • If you enjoy jerky, consider making your own. There are numerous, additive free recipes available online.
  • The best options for optimal health will always be fresh, organic, whole foods that you make from scratch. Eating the rainbow, meaning eating a wide range of food types and from various color groups ensures you’re enjoying a balanced diet.
  • Avoid anti-inflammatory foods.
  • Fermented foods and beverages are a wonderful way to build up good gut bacteria, unless you have dietary restrictions for this type of food, such as a histamine intolerance.

This guest post was written by Elisha of My Health Maven. She is deeply passionate about educating people and empowering them to lead healthier lives. We encourage you to check out her blog and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest!

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Elisha McFarland
Health Expert
Elisha McFarland, N.D. is the founder of My Health Maven. She turned her debilitating illness from mercury poisoning into a dedicated passion for helping people.

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