Well Being

How To Buy The Best Turkey For A Humane, Chemical-Free Thanksgiving

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We've covered how to have a healthy and satisfying vegetarian Thanksgiving, but we recognize that some of you (and, uh, us) eat meat, and you probably want turkey that tastes good, is good for you and comes from good people. For an omnivorous, ethical, eco-friendly and organic Thanksgiving celebration, here's what you should consider.

  • Was turkey raised humanely?
  • Was turkey raised sustainably?
  • Is turkey free of antibiotics? Growth hormones?
  • Was turkey grass-fed or grain-fed?
  • Is turkey toxin or chemical-free?

Some of it may be the stuff of hipster/yuppie cliches, but there's nothing wrong with wanting a Thanksgiving dinner that meets your ethical, organic or sustainability standards — turkey included.

I was originally going to address each point separately, because people have different concerns when it comes to eating meat just like people have different reasons for being vegetarian. But the areas overlap in practice. Turkeys raised humanely also tend to be fed real food and raised in a sustainable way, and the same on the flipside. Turkeys raised in a way that's sustainable or environmentally friendly tend to taste better and have more health benefits for human consumers.

At conventional turkey farms, birds are closely confined, often inside, and sometimes abused. Birds at unconventional farms that are allowed to go outside and move around (i.e. “free range”) are clearly being treated better than those at conventional farms — and they're also likely to taste better and have more flavor. Health magazine explains:

Those unconventional turkeys have a different lifestyle, but also a different flavor.  They’re generally heritage or heirloom breeds, rather than the standard-issue broad-breasted white (which has legs that can barely support its weight), and so their dark-to-white meat ratio is higher.

Since the birds grow more slowly and move around, their meat isn’t as soft and fine-grained.  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. A flavor and texture just crying out for gravy and dressing.

A better tasting bird means you don't need to mask turkey's blandness in these carb- and fat-heavy accouterments. (Everything is interconnected!) Free-range turkeys also tend to have a better proportion of good to bad fats. Similarly, a grass-fed turkey will have a better balance of fats than grain-fed turkeys, as well as be likely to taste better.

One thing not to fret over with turkey is hormones — the USDA requires all poultry to be hormone free. But conventionally raised turkey may contain other “growth promotants,” such as antibiotics, and almost all do.

Organic means the bird was raised with no antibiotics and no growth enhancers, given only organic feed and given access to the outdoors.