Let's Talk Turkey: How To Find A Healthy, Ethical Thanksgiving Bird

mbg Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care."

Image by Darren Muir / Stocksy

In charge of the turkey this year? Choose a bird that suits your tastes, ethics, and budget with this comprehensive guide to five of the most common varieties.

Conventional turkey

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How is it raised?

The majority of birds you'll find on the center of Thanksgiving tables have been conventionally raised. These birds tend to be the least expensive, but you get what you pay for. Since producers are selling these turkeys at such a low price point, they need to raise enough of them to turn a profit, which can mean cramping lots of them into one small area, feeding them animal byproducts to make them grow faster, and pumping them with antibiotics.

Some misleading labels that are trying to put lipstick on a conventional bird include "natural" (this just means it doesn't have any added colorings or weird ingredients), hormone-free (by law, hormones cannot be used on hogs and poultry in the U.S.), or "antibiotics used only when needed" (the "when needed" part is vague and up for interpretation).

What does it taste like?

Beyond being inhumane, many conventional factory farm practices will affect the flavor of your bird. "I feel if you push nature too far too quick, you're not getting a good-quality product," says Theo Weening, a meat buyer who has spent the last 13 years as VP of meat and poultry for Whole Foods Market. He adds that turkeys raised on a vegetarian diet, without antibiotics, tend to grow in a more controlled way and have a richer flavor. The pros agree: When Bon Appétit set out to find the perfect turkey for their Thanksgiving spread this year, they immediately wrote off the conventionally raised bird as tough, dry, bland, and just plain sad.

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How much does it cost?

Conventional birds are the cheapest you'll find on the market, typically costing less than $1.50/pound.

Is it healthy?

It's up for debate: While the antibiotics in turkeys won't hurt you, the drug-resistant pathogens they promote could. A borderline unbelievable 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are now used for industrial livestock production, and as Consumer Reports explains, these can leave only the strongest bacteria—the stuff you really don't want squirming around—behind to be excreted in manure: "The bacteria continue to reproduce and spread resistance to other bacteria in the animal waste and can get into our environment via airborne dust blowing off of farms, and water and soil polluted with contaminated feces. In turn, those bacteria get on the animals' hides and skin and can contaminate the meat we eat when the animals are slaughtered."

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Free-range or free-roaming turkey 

How is it raised?

Seeing "free-roaming" on a label might make you think a bird lived its best life in sunny pastures, but that's not necessarily the case. By definition, free-roaming or free-range bird simply needs to have access to the outdoors for at least half of its life. So it could have spent most of its time outside, or it could have spent it in an otherwise dark, crammed coop with a small window or door (and been fed the same antibiotics and animal byproducts as the conventional bird). To make sure a free-range turkey was ethically raised, keep an eye out for the Certified Humane, which signifies an animal was handled in an appropriate manner and given access to at least eight hours of sunlight a day, or the Global Animal Partnership label, which sets minimum space requirements for the birds to move around.

What does it taste like?

It totally depends on the bird: A free-range bird that had access to outdoor space and was fed a high-quality diet could taste more like a certified organic or pastured one. A cramped, poorly fed one will taste more like conventional varieties.

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How much does it cost?

It varies, but free-range turkeys typically tend to cost somewhere between conventional and certified organic birds.

Is it healthy?

Again, it depends on how much room it had to roam and whether it was given antibiotics or not.

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Organic turkey

How is it raised?

In order to be certified organic by the USDA, a turkey has to live off of vegetarian, non-GMO feed that's free of chemical herbicides and pesticides. It also needs to have access to the outdoors, and it can't be treated with antibiotics at any point in its life. In order to keep birds healthy without antibiotics, organic farms need to ensure their food is healthy and their barns clean—but not too clean. For Heidi Orrock, a fourth-generation farmer at her family's turkey farm Diestel Family Ranch in Sonora, California, that means not cleaning with harsh chemicals. "We use a stabilized probiotic solution in between flocks, and during the life cycle of a flock, we'll use probiotics to clean and maintain a healthy microbial environment," she explains. "You want to create an environment in which the bad bugs can't live because you have so many healthy bugs overwhelming them."

What does it taste like?

When a bird is raised on a plant-based diet with plenty of room to move around, it comes through in the taste. Weening says that last year, for the first time, Whole Foods Market sold more organic turkeys than conventionally raised ones (though all Whole Foods Market turkeys are antibiotic- and animal-byproduct-free), thanks in part to the organic bird's tenderness, moisture, and vibrant flavor.

How much does it cost?

A certified organic bird is usually at least $2 more expensive per pound than a conventional one. (But news alert: Whole Foods Market's organic bird will be $2.99/pound for prime members this year.)

Is it healthy?

Since it doesn't have the same antibiotic-resistant concerns as a conventional bird, organic birds are typically considered a healthier option.

Pasture-raised turkey

How is it raised?

Pastured turkeys are given plenty of access to the outdoors, so their diets are usually rich in grasses, berries, insects, and other treats they find in nature. The easiest way to verify that a bird was pasture-raised is to look for a Global Animal Partnership (GAP) label. This labeling scheme ranks 3,800-plus farms on a scale of 1 to 5—with 4 being a pasture-raised environment and 5 being the closest you'd come to a bird's natural environment. Diestel Family Ranch's pastured birds tout a GAP label of a 5, thanks to the farm's regenerative practices that rotate animals around different parts of wide-open pasture. "It's an old-fashioned way of farming, where all the species are working in harmony versus only having one flock," says Orrock. "That is basically as wild as a turkey as you're going to get while still buying it from a farm."

What does it taste like?

Like an organic turkey, a pasture-raised one tends to be more juicy and vibrant, with flavor coming in from the bird's rich diet.

How much does it cost?

The best things in life may be free, but pastured birds are far from it. Since they thrive in moderate, sunny climes, these birds are more rare than ones raised primarily indoors, and the limited supply means they usually cost around $10/pound.

Is it healthy?

Pastured birds tend to be lower in saturated fat and packed with omega-3s from their plant-heavy diets.

Heritage or heirloom turkey

How is it raised?

The foodie's bird, heritage turkeys are breeds that date back to the 19th century. Bourbon Red, Royal Palm, and Standard Bronze, etc.—these are the wild turkeys that roamed pre-factory farming and tend to have really developed, intense flavors. They are also usually smaller than a standard turkey and have less breast meat. They can also have darker feathers that are difficult to remove.

An heirloom bird is similar, except it's artificially inseminated and has a little more breast meat. "It comes closer to what you'd call the classic turkey," Weening explains.

What does it taste like?

Heritage birds have a small cult following in the foodie community, but the everyday person might find the bird's flavor too rich and developed. Weening has seen people buy a small traditional bird in addition to a heritage one for Thanksgiving Day, just in case the heritage isn't a crowd-pleaser.

How much does it cost?

Like pastured birds, heritage ones can be hard to come by and cost upward of $10/pound. Note that "heritage" only speaks to a bird's breed, not how it was raised, so if you're going to shell out for one, you should go for an organic or pastured option.

Is it healthy?

Depending on how it was raised, heritage birds can be high in omega-3s. They also tend to be more muscular and have a lower saturated fat content.

A note on fresh vs. frozen birds.

Technically, fresh birds are ones that have been stored in temperatures above 26 degrees. They could have been frozen at some point in their lives, in which case they would be labeled "previously frozen." Frozen birds are typically processed long before shoppers get their hands on them, but that shouldn't affect their taste or nutrition too much.

"Since so much of the fresh meat and fish we buy has been previously frozen and thawed by the time it gets to the store, most of us can't tell the difference after it's cooked," Cording explains. The real difference between fresh and frozen is cook and prep time: Frozen birds need at least a day to thaw out and will usually take longer to cook in the oven.

No matter what kind of bird you have, be sure to handle it carefully. "Because it's a big piece of poultry that takes up a lot of space in the kitchen, there is a big risk for foodborne illness by cross-contamination," says Cording. "Be careful about disinfecting surfaces and be mindful that you're not sharing cutting boards or knives with the raw poultry."

With that disclaimer out of the way, you're ready to prep the star of your Thanksgiving table. Having a smartly sourced bird to complement plant-based sides like this Za'atar Sweet Potatoes and Garlicky Kale and Sage Roasted Butternut Squash? Now that's something to be grateful for.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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