When your out there looking for the center piece to your Thanksgiving meal you’ll find yourself faced with several decisions to make about what kind of turkey to purchase for your family. But what does all that stuff on the label really mean? Conventionally raised, organic, beyond organic, pesticide free, all natural, free range and pastured raised. The packaging says no hormones, no anti-bionics, vegetarian diet, heritage and pre-brined, but what does all that mean and which is best for taste and for your families health? Lets take a look at what the terms on the label of your turkey mean and what effect the different processes and breeds of turkey have on both flavor and your health.
When you see the word natural on the label it simply means that nothing has been added to the turkey…sort of. No artificial colors, flavors or preservatives and the bird has been “minimally processed. Sounds pretty good. But some of the biggest poultry producers have skirted this rule and started injecting the turkeys with broth, salt and a seaweed concoction that plumps up the turkey (adding weight that you pay for) and because all those ingredients are “natural” they get to slap the “all natural” label on their turkeys. Kind of sneaky and not what I would call all natural. In terms of your health I think most of us get enough salt in our diet without our turkey having it injected into them. I haven’t actually seen any studies about the subject but I would think that eating turkey that had been juiced with sodium wouldn’t be the best idea for people with high blood pressure but that’s pure conjecture on my part.
To me this is one of the most deceptive labels in the food industry. When I hear the term “free range” I envision a beautiful tom turkey in a large open field, pecking at purslane and chasing down crickets and worms. Living a life in harmony with its surroundings eating what a glorious natural turkey should eat and getting a ton of exercise as it readies itself for my Thanksgiving table. The reality is, it’s a bird that’s stuffed into a cramped cage. Once a day they open the door to that cage which leads to a small open area that the bird can go out of for five minutes, then the door closes. The turkey doesn’t leave the cage because there is nothing in the open space to lure it out of its cage. Not only that but the conventional turkeys of today have been bred to have breasts so large most adult turkeys have trouble walking so getting out of the cage is a problem. Basically it’s a conventional turkey that your spending a lot more money for.
Most of us would think that this label refers to the feed that the turkeys are fed, but that is not the case. Turkey farms that produce large amounts of product are subject to infestations of all kinds (mites, rats, lice etc) thus repeated doses of insecticides are the norm. Can you say ewwww! Turkeys with this label have not been sprayed with pesticides and neither has their feed.
100% Vegetarian diet
This one is interesting because turkeys by nature aren’t actually vegetarians; given the opportunity turkeys like chickens are fierce hunters…of things like crickets, snails, worms, grass hoppers and other insects, turkeys have also been known to eat small lizards and snakes. What this label basically says is that the turkey had no access to pasture and the feed it got was made up of grains and maybe some grasses and free of animal by products (ground up icky bits of animals and their feces). Which makes it a bit of a mixed bag, in a perfect world my turkey would eat some snails and insects which would raise its omega-3 fatty acid levels. But I have to say I like the exclusion of animal bits and feces.
No added hormones
Probably the biggest BS label of them all. Since U.S. law prohibits the use of growth hormones in all poultry, all this label is really saying is the company isn’t breaking the law.
These producers are promising you that their birds were not treated with any antibiotics. If a bird got sick it was removed from the rest of the birds and was not sold under this label. That’s a pretty big deal. That means you won’t be ingesting any of those second hand antibiotics.
This is the good stuff, according to the USDA to use this label, the farm must meet USDA standards and be officially certified through the USDA. Here’s what the label promises (for the birds themselves) 100% organic feed, no animal byproducts, no hormones, no antibiotics, outdoor access, no irradiation, no pesticides (for the feed), no synthetic fertilizers, no sewage sludge, no synthetic pesticides, and no GMO. Personally this is the bird I want on my table.
This particular bird can be tough to find and is often very pricey. What pastured means is this turkey lived its life in a pasture environment, lots of frolicking in the sunshine and open spaces. The bird got some of its food from the pasture (grass, bugs, seeds etc, usually about 20% of its diet) as well as from chicken feed (usually about 80% of their diet). Often these are small poultry farmers producing top quality product. You may also run across some of these farmers that claim to be “Beyond Organic” what that means is they run their farms with fully organic practices – oftentimes stricter yet than organic – but without USDA certification. Why? Getting the certification from the USDA is time consuming and really expensive so instead they gain the trust of their customers and do business by providing a high quality product that is backed by their word.
This is a term your hearing more and more when it comes to turkeys often around the holidays. This term isn’t regulated but most of the time a heritage bird is considered to be a non standard turkey breed, which is called the Broad-breasted white. These heritage breeds tend to be leaner and less meaty because they aren’t bred to have a Sophia Vergara sized breast. The biggest difference in the heritage birds is the way they are raised (typically more access to open pasture and wild food) and a gamier flavor.
A brined bird simply means it was either soaked in a salt water solution or injected with one. This process tends to create a moister juicer bird. It can also drive up the price as you pay for tons of water that the turkey soaks up then this water evaporates during the cooking process. My suggestion is to brine the bird yourself. This way You control what goes into the bird and you don’t pay for a bunch of salt water that just disappears.