Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Your Thanksgiving Dinner

  1. Turkeys labeled “Natural” may actually have been treated with antibiotics and fed corn and soy meal grown with synthetic pesticides. The USDA defines “natural” as a turkey containing no artificial ingredients such as added flavors or colors, and that is only minimally processed. It turns out, this leaves out a lot. A turkey labeled “natural” can be fed grains grown with pesticides and raised on a farm that uses pesticides on their fields. Antibiotics can be used not only to treat illnesses, but also as growth promoters. Look for turkeys that are USDA Organic or that say “free of antibiotics”.

  2. “Free range” turkeys may have never set foot outdoors. According to the USDA, “free range” means simply that the turkey “has been allowed access to the outside.” This can mean that they are raised primarily in “range pens” or houses, and that there is a door to the “outside,” which might simply be a cement patio. So “free range” turkeys may almost never see the range.

  3. “Fresh” turkeys may be over 2 months old. The USDA definition of “fresh” refers to turkeys whose internal temperature has never been below 26°F. “Hard-chilled” means the turkey was kept between 0°F and 26°F. “Frozen” means the turkey was kept at or below 0°F. The surprising thing about this standard is that it only mentions temperature, not time. Most Thanksgiving turkeys are processed in September and October, but are still labeled “fresh” in November.

  4. The turkeys we eat (or 99% of them) can’t run, fly, or mate when fully grown. The most common turkeys found in the US – the Broad Breasted White – have been bred to maximize their growth (particularly of breast meat), and are thus unable to reproduce without artificial insemination. They can’t run or fly, and they often go lame due to their heavy breasts. These birds grow twice as fast, and often twice as big as “heritage” turkeys – the turkeys the pilgrims would have seen.

  5. If you buy “basted” or “plumped” turkeys, you are getting a turkey with up to 10 times the sodium levels, and you will be spending several dollars on salt water rather than meat. Basted or plumped turkeys have been injected with up to three percent of their weight (eight percent if they are boneless) of a solution containing butter or other fats, water, flavor enhancers, or “other approved substances,” such as sodium phosphate. Watch out for small print saying “contains up to 15% saltwater.”

  6. The vast majority of turkeys raised in the US are grown in large-scale Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) where they are often packed in tight conditions, and where their beaks and parts of their toes may be cut off to prevent pecking and cannibalism between animals.

  7. Turkey skin is the least healthy part of the turkey. The skin contains 482 calories and 44 grams of fat, and also has the least protein. A fresh turkey with skin has 231% more fat, 59% more calories, and 23% more cholesterol than a turkey with no skin. Turkey wings with skin are the second least healthy. Wings with skin contain 238 calories and 13 grams of fat per serving.

  8. Breast meat without the skin is the healthiest part of the turkey. Breast meat without skin has only 161 calories and 4 grams of fat per serving.

  9. Two tablespoons of cranberry sauce will give over 1/3 of the sugar you need for the day. And many cranberry sauces contain High Fructose Corn Syrup.

  10. Two tablespoons of gravy sauce give you over 1/3 of the sodium you need for the day. Many gravy products contain have artificial colors of concern, and some contain transfats.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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6 Responses to Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Your Thanksgiving Dinner

  1. Gail says:

    Thanks for this info. Are you able to tell us any of the bird producers/killers that are more humane and that do not create just large-breasted birds? I’d like a "happier" bird. Diestel turkeys offer the original Heirloom birds (but also the large-breasted ones) – http://www.diestelturkey.com/our_family_of_turkeys.htm
    Can you comment on their turkeys and offer other alternatives?
    Thanks –

  2. Jane says:

    Is there any good news? You’ve told me all about the things I don’t want to buy; what kind of turkey DO I want to buy?

  3. Dara says:

    Jane – there is some good news. There is a resurgence of local heritage turkey farmers in the US. So I would recommend you look for a heritage turkey from a local farm. Check out our tips for picking a turkey at: http://www.goodguide.com/topics/2009/11/14/thanksgiving-turkey-buying-guide

  4. Colleen says:

    Does anyone else get teary-eyed when they read stuff like this? Watching Food, Inc. made me cry like a baby!

  5. Paula says:

    A veggie Thanksgiving dinner, instead!

  6. Natalie says:

    An ethical alternative to buying from a grocery store would be to buy a Heritage Turkey from a child in a 4-H or FFA club in your county. I spent 10 years in 4-H, and was always thrilled when someone bought my poultry.

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