If you gain a little weight this Thanksgiving, blame it on the stuffing, the corn bread, the mashed potatoes and gravy. Blame it on the pumpkin pie.
Just don't blame it on the turkey.
"Turkey is wonderful healthy food . . . especially if you have breast meat," says Susan Roberts, professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston.
And most especially if you take the skin off. Skinless turkey breast is about as close to a fat-free meat as you can get. Besides which, it's loaded with protein, as well as some important vitamins and minerals.
It's hard to find a nutrition expert who doesn't think eating turkey is good for your health. Ironically, though, many scientists worry that turkey farming may be bad for public health in general. They fear that some widely used methods are implicated in the emergence of "superbugs" -- bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, thus making some human diseases much harder to treat.
"We're on the brink of a global crisis," says microbiologist Lance Price, director of metagenomics and human health at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix. "Some say it's already here."
Now, as the nation prepares to dig in and pig out, we consider several good reasons to give thanks for turkeys -- as well as a few bones some people have to pick with the industry. Plus we offer a little food for thought to help you decide which turkey you want to plump for at the store.
Turkeys, turkeys everywhere at this time of year, and most of them Broad Breasted Whites. But those come in different varieties, and there are other kinds of turkeys too. From a health point of view, does it make any difference which you choose?
Broad Breasted White turkeys can be be conventional, free-range or organic.
Most of the birds that will wind up on tables this Thursday are these. You'll know a turkey is conventional if the label doesn't boast about being anything else. Conventional turkeys are raised in barns, free to roam around (not kept in cages) but not to go outside.
The definition of "free-range" is a little loosey-goosey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the term can be applied to any turkey that "has been allowed access to the outside." There is no requirement that the turkey has gone outside often, or at all. Such access may just mean that at times, a door is opened to a small pen attached to the barn, says Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist at UC Davis.
Some free-range turkeys do spend a good deal of time outdoors, indulging their taste for bugs. (Turkeys love bugs.) But they're given turkey feed too.
Organic turkeys eat the same sort of feed as conventional turkeys, but all of the feed ingredients have to be certified as organic. They must be free-range and can never be treated with antibiotics.
These turkeys represent a return to old-fashioned breeds: Beltsville Small Whites, Royal Palms and Standard Bronzes. They don't grow as fast or big as broad-breasted birds. Often they're raised to be free-range and organic.
Price-wise, conventional turkeys are the best deal, free-range more expensive, organic more expensive still, and heritage generally most expensive of all. Factors to think about:
All organic turkeys must be raised without use of antibiotics. Sometimes other types of turkeys are too. "That's the most important thing to look for on the label," says microbiologist Lance Price of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix.
Antibiotic use doesn't affect nutritional value but may have consequences for public health if it fosters the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch in Northern California and a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, argues that conventional turkeys are likely to get sick more often because they're raised in crowded, stressful conditions -- and thus increase a flock's exposure to antibiotics.
But Bradley says the amount of space turkeys need has been scientifically determined and the barns meet those standards.
If free-range birds spend a lot of time -- and do a lot of eating -- outdoors, they may have a better balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Typical American diets often have too much omega-6 relative to omega-3. Some studies have shown that when cattle are fed mostly grass instead of grain, it ups the omega-3 content of beef. The same may be true for turkeys.
Because they grow more slowly, heritage birds may have more fat. And in general, female turkeys (hens) have a few more calories and a bit more fat, while males (toms) are a little saltier.
Still, there's no evidence to date of any large nutritional differences among turkey types. Daniel Fletcher, head of the Animal Science Department at the University of Connecticutdoubts that major differences exist. "Personally, I always buy the cheapest turkey I can get my hands on."
Some people do feel strongly that unconventional turkeys are superior. And just spending more for something can make it taste better, Fletcher acknowledges. "It's psychological, but that's very real."
Here are a couple more turkey facts to get your teeth into -- one of them something you don't need to think about.
You may see some turkeys advertised as "hormone free."
The Foster Farms website -- to name just one example -- says of its fresh turkey: "You can feel good about serving it to your family as we promise that it will be the freshest available at your store and will never contain added hormones or steroids.
The Whole Foods Market website also proclaims that its turkeys lack added growth hormones -- and then notes, in small letters, that "federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising pork and poultry."
So don't be overly impressed by such claims. It's been illegal to treat poultry with hormones since the 1950s. "And they were never, ever used in turkeys," says Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis.
In short, the only hormones turkeys have are the ones they produce themselves.
Similarly, any claim you may see about a steroid void is another red herring since the use of any steroids in turkey production is also illegal.
Some turkeys are injected with a solution intended to make them tastier and juicier.
If this has been done, the package label must say "basted" or "self-basted," list the ingredients in the solution and tell how much of each was used.
Possible ingredients include salt, partially hydrogenated soy or corn oil, and butter. The weight of the injected solution is included in the weight of the turkey.
Different brands use different solutions, but in general, based on nutrient data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, self-basted turkeys are much saltier and somewhat fattier, although gram for gram they have fewer calories -- and less protein -- because they have more water.
For example, when cooked, self-basted turkey breast with skin has about 18% fewer calories than non-self-basted turkey breast with skin. But it has about 24% less protein, 8% more fat, 13% more saturated fat -- and 650% more salt.
Similarly, self-basted dark meat with skin has about 14% fewer calories than non-self-basted dark meat with skin. But it has about 32% less protein, 21% more fat, 25% more saturated fat -- and 475% more salt.
"If you're going to eat meat, turkey is one of the best ones to eat," says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado in Denver. "What gets us in trouble at Thanksgiving is all the stuff we eat with it."
Skinless turkey breast has a lot of protein. It doesn't have a lot of fat or calories. Consider these stats from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service Nutrient Data Laboratory:
Compared with skinless chicken breast (which is considered very lean) skinless turkey breast has almost as much protein, but 18% fewer calories, 79% less fat and 76% less saturated fat.
Skinless dark turkey meat has less protein and more fat and calories than skinless breast meat. But it's a pretty good food nonetheless -- not much fattier than skinless chicken breast and much less fatty than lean ground beef.
If you opt to leave the skin on your turkey, the calorie amounts go up by more than 10%, and the fat amounts go up much more -- by nearly 65% for dark meat and more than 300% for breast meat.
Yet even with skin, breast meat has fewer calories and less fat than dark meat without skin. And dark meat with skin is fairly comparable to lean ground beef -- a few more calories, a little more fat, but also a little more protein and quite a bit less saturated fat. (See the accompanying chart.)
Turkey is also a good source of several minerals and vitamins, including iron (in the form most easily absorbed), niacin (helpful for increasing good HDL cholesterol), selenium (which has antioxidant properties), zinc (important for the immune system and wound-healing) and vitamin B6 (important for the immune system).
Parts of the bird differ nutritionally for functional reasons: Meat is basically muscle, and both the fat content and the color of turkey meat are determined by the kind of exercise different muscles get.
Turkeys do a lot of standing and walking around. The energy for this slow, steady exercise comes from burning fat, which requires oxygen (i.e., it's aerobic). So the leg and thigh muscles (responsible for the standing and walking) need to have some fat around as well as a good supply of oxygen. Oxygen is stored in a red protein called myoglobin, which makes muscles, or meat, dark.
The muscles in a turkey's breast and wings are meant to be used to fly, which wild turkeys can do for short distances, though domestic ones no longer can. Brief flights require brief spurts of intense exertion, and for that muscles burn glucose, not fat. This does not require oxygen (i.e., it's anaerobic) so these muscles have much less myoglobin, and that's why the meat is white.
The fat distributed throughout the thigh and leg meat is only a small portion of the fat in a turkey. Most of it is deposited in or under the skin or inside the abdominal cavity. This is very handy for diet-conscious consumers, says Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis. "You can just pull the fat off if you don't want to eat it. The marbling in beef makes it much harder to extract."
Turkeys, like other animals, get sick. And though few dispute that they should then be treated, many scientists, medical professionals and animal experts are concerned that too much medicine is being given to too many turkeys -- and to too many food animals in general.
"The use and misuse are rampant," says Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch in Northern California and a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
Those concerned fear serious human health consequences -- development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- and that this is already beginning to happen.
Antibiotics are approved in turkeys both for therapeutic use (meaning to treat sick turkeys) and for disease prevention -- which usually means the rest of the flock will also be treated to keep the disease from spreading. Antibiotics are used in this same way in other food animals, and in some cases they're also used for growth promotion, although that's not supposed to be done with turkeys.
Antibiotic resistance develops when antibiotics kill off only some of the bacteria they're supposed to -- so only the super-strong survive. If this happens enough, the susceptible bacteria are wiped out, but a strain of resistant bacteria takes over in their place, and the antibiotics that used to work don't work any longer.
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call antibiotic resistance one of its top concerns.
"There are bacteria that were once treatable with antibiotics that are now resistant to everything," says microbiologist Lance Price, director of metagenomics and human health at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix. Price says that part of the problem is certainly due to agricultural use.
One example is the use of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones to treat Campylobacter in chickens, says Dr. Sherwood Gorbach, distinguished professor of public health and medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
Campylobacter is the leading cause of bacterial diarrhea in the United States and is typically treated by the fluoroquinolone Cipro. But since the mid-1990s, resistance to Cipro has risen from 2% to 20% or even higher, Gorbach says. And he believes it's due to the use of Baytril, the form of the drug used in chickens. In 2005, the FDA banned the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry.
Breeders do need antibiotics sometimes, to treat sick birds and keep the disease from spreading to the whole flock, says Daniel Fletcher, head of the Animal Science Department at the University of Connecticut. "If we didn't use antibiotics," he says, "we'd have a tough time meeting the nutritional needs of people in this country."
Gorbach says there's a bill before Congress intended to allow more use of fluoroquinolones in chickens again and adds, "We feel very strongly that's the wrong thing to do."
Different ways to slice a turkey
When it comes to calories, fat and protein, how do various parts of the turkey compare, and how do they stack up against chicken and lean beef? Data for 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of cooked meat:
Turkey breast (skinless)
Total fat: 0.7 gram
Saturated fat:0.2 gram
Dark turkey meat (skinless)
Total fat: 4.3 grams
Saturated fat:1.5 grams
Turkey breast (with skin)
Total fat: 3.2 grams
Saturated fat:0.9 grams
Dark turkey meat (with skin)
Total fat: 7.1 grams
Saturated fat:2.1 grams
Chicken breast (skinless)
Total fat: 3.6 grams
Saturated fat:1 grams
95% lean ground beef
Total fat: 6.6 grams
Saturated fat:3 grams
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service Nutrient Data Laboratory
Ravn is a freelance writer.
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