Turkey Time is almost upon us. Almost time for the other other white meat. But how do you know you’re getting the healthiest turkey? The feeding of birds effects the body composition and the health benefits. Research has found that the amount of total fat, the composition of this fat, and the protein content of the turkey all depend on the turkey’s diet. For example, the use of coconut oil in the feed has been associated with lower risk of infection in the turkeys from Campylobacter bacteria and Salmonella bacteria. The physical health of the turkeys prior to slaughter also makes a difference in nutrient content. If the turkeys were not in good health, their bodies were not capable of metabolizing ALA into omega-3 fatty acids.
According to Health Magazine, turkey farms, like all farms, can range from, “the conventional, where birds are closely confined, fed antibiotics and growing agents, and denied access to fresh air or sunshine, to the less conventional, where they’re allowed to run around, go outside, and eat feed that’s all actual food.” It’s important to note that turkeys raised on the less conventional farms have a different flavor. They are generally heritage or heirloom breeds, and unlike the standard issue broad-breasted white, they have a higher dark-to-white meat ratio. This is because these birds grow more slowly and move around, so their meat isn’t as soft and fine-grained. Health Magazine states, “ One of the reasons dry white meat is a perennial Thanksgiving hazard is that fast-growing birds are necessarily bred to put on lean as fast as they can, and a slower-growing turkey has a bit more fat marbling, and a flavor and texture that are more like other kinds of meat.” You may turn up your nose at any chance to Thanksgiving, but trust me, this kind of turkey is AWESOME with gravy.
If you do decide to get an unconventional bird, the best way to find one is at a local farm. Local Harvest is a place to start. There are also some bigger operations with significant retail distribution:
- Diestel Family Farms (mostly in the West)
- Mary’s Turkeys (West)
- Jaindl Turkey Farms (East)
- White Oak Pastures (Southeast and Mid-Atlantic)
- Murray’s Turkeys (Northeast)
If these are too expensive, check your local Whole Foods. Whole Foods Market makes sure that all their turkeys enjoy minimum lifestyle standards, with no crowding or cages, and no antibiotics or animal by-products in their feed. These turkeys sell for $1.89 a pound.
If you are looking for your typical Thanksgiving turkey (and there’s nothing wrong with that), sometimes all the labeling can get confusing. Here are the definitions and labeling as defined by the USDA(courtesy of HealthyChild.org):
Turkey labeled natural contains no artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative, or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient. It must also be minimally processed, so that the raw product is in no way fundamentally altered. The label must explain the use of the term “natural” with product-specific details.
Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising poultry. So any label that claims “no hormones added” is advertising falsely or trying to legitimize a higher price tag.
According to Kosher laws, animals should be cared for ethically, and slaughtered as humanely as possible. However, correct Kosher treatment may be the exception rather than the rule, especially in large organizations. The label doesn’t guarantee that animals are raised or treated any better than animals from industrial farms. Local farms or butchers may have more specific details on how their poultry was raised and cared for.
Any product claiming to be organic isn’t fully legit without the USDA Organic Seal, which means the product is made of 95% organic ingredients. When the term organic appears on a label without the seal, the product is 70% or more organic.
Free-range turkeys are touted as the best for the bird. But, the USDA says the term means very little, only that birds have “access” to the outdoors. That means they are likely bred similarly to conventional birds: in over-crowded space with a short lifespan to end in a potentially inhumane slaughter. Once again, your local farm or vendor may be able to better guarantee your bird enjoyed a humane life.
Heritage turkeys are defined by the historic, range-based production system in which they are raised. They must meet the following criteria: natural mating, long productive outdoor lifestyle, and slow growth rate.
According to the Heritage Turkey Foundation, heirloom turkeys may come from older breeds, and “can’t mate naturally, do not mature like true heritage turkeys, and don’t taste good.”