Because most cuts of turkey provide valuable amounts of protein, turkey is often regarded as a high-protein food. Skinned turkey breast will provide the most protein per serving, at 34 grams in 4 ounces. But you will still get 31 grams from 4 ounces of turkey leg and 21 grams from 4 ounces of turkey thigh.
In addition to protein, however, turkey is also rich in other nutrients. All B vitamins are present in turkey meat, including B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folate, biotin, and choline. (Because the biotin content of turkey meat is sensitive to the turkey's dietary intake, the amount of this vitamin can vary greatly, with an approximate average of 0.8 micrograms in 4 ounces of turkey breast.) Turkey is an excellent for vitamin B3 (niacin) and provides over 13 milligram in 4 ounces, or over 80% of the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI). It's also a very good source of vitamin B6, at 0.92 milligrams in 4 ounces (54% DRI). By providing 22% DRI for choline in 4 ounces, turkey also ranks as a good source of this B vitamin.
In terms of minerals, turkey is richest in selenium and provides over 60% of the DRI in a single 4-ounce serving. Zinc, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and iron are also provided by this food in noteworthy amounts.
All cuts of turkey contain omega-3 fats. However, the content of omega-3s in turkey can vary widely, depending on the turkey's diet. One of the reasons we recommend pasture-raised turkey is the ability of turkeys to enjoy omega-3 containing plants and insects in natural pasture settings. As a general rule, the most favorable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is found in skinned turkey breast, where the ratio in non-pasture-raised turkey is approximately 10:1. This same ratio is about 13:1 in non-pasture-raised turkey leg or turkey thigh with skin. While there are only a few studies documenting the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in pasture-raised turkey, those studies suggest that pasture feeding can lower the ratio to approximately 7:1. (There are some studies on pasture-raised chickens that show similar results.) Within the omega-3 family of fats, it is possible to get 10-60 milligrams of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) from a 4-ounce serving of turkey, depending on the cut and diet consumed by the turkey. DHA is a unique omega-3 fat in terms of its ability to support healthy nerve function.
When we rank all of our 100+ WHFoods based on their protein richness (how much protein they provide in comparison with their calorie content), turkey ranks third among all of our foods. A 4-ounce serving of skinned baked turkey breast provides about 34 grams of protein and over two-thirds of the Daily Value (DV). With 4 ounces of turkey leg, this number drops just slightly to 31-32 grams of protein. With 4 ounces of turkey thigh, it drops to about 21 grams. In these examples, the protein values are changing from cut-to-cut partly because of the way the turkey moves and uses its muscles, and partly because of the fat content of the various cuts. If the health benefit you are seeking from turkey is focused on protein richness, you'll probably want to stick with skinned turkey breast as your preferred cut.
Unfortunately, there is not as much research on turkey as there is on chicken, its fellow bird in the poultry category. Several preliminary studies show the protein richness of turkey to be of potential benefit in regulating blood sugar levels as well as insulin metabolism. These findings make sense to us since adequate protein intake in a balanced way throughout the day can be very helpful in managing blood sugar. In the area of cancer prevention, the studies that we have seen on turkey mostly differentiate it from red meat (mostly beef) and show that intake of turkey is not associated with increased cancer risk in the same way as red meats. However, these studies do not usually go on to show that turkey intake lowers risk of cancer—they simply show that turkey intake does not raise this risk. An additional problem in this area is the lack of studies on pasture-raised turkey. We have not found any studies on pasture-raised turkeys and cancer risk. We very much look forward to future research in which this important topic is addressed.
Like chicken, turkey belongs to the bird (Aves) class of animals, and to the family of birds called Phasianidae. While there are many different breeds of turkeys, most of them belong to the same genus and species of bird, namely Meleagris gallopavo. Turkeys are truly native to North and South America - they were not brought to the "New World" by European settlers but were instead discovered to be already present and intimately involved with Native American cultures. Turkeys are relatively large birds that can reach about 30-35 pounds in weight. They can fly short distances at speeds of about 50-55 miles per hour and run at approximately 20-25 miles per hour.
When provided with natural pasture, turkeys will spend extensive time foraging. They are very diverse in their food selection! Pasture-raised turkey enjoy eating acorns, beechnuts, pine seeds, grasses, grass seeds, sedges, farbs, tubers, bulbs, crabgrass, wild berries, alfalfa, clovers, beetles, grasshoppers, and leafhoppers. This very broad natural diet is one of the reasons that we recommend pasture-raised turkey.
"Poults" is the name often used for young turkeys (and other young fowl). Female turkeys are called hens, and male turkeys are called toms or gobblers. In their first weeks of life, poults are typically kept in a brooder area that is temperature controlled (often 90-100°F) and may have limited pasture depending on the exact circumstances with the flock and habitat safety.
Many different breeds of turkey are pasture-raised for food. These breeds include Broad-breasted Whites, Standard Bronze, White Holland, Bourbon Reds, Narragansetts, and Royal Palm.
As mentioned in the Description section, turkeys are truly native to North and South America and were an important part of Native American cultures long before the arrival of the European colonists. While Native American cultures did domesticate numerous breeds of turkeys, other breeds remained wild and were hunted in woodlands instead of domesticated. However, from fossil evidence and DNA analysis, we do know that turkeys were indeed domesticated in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) prior to the arrival of the European colonists. They were domesticated once again by the Spanish and British who eventually brought them back to Europe and introduced them into the food supplies of their homelands.
At 2.5 million tons of turkey meat per year, the U.S. is by far the world's largest producer of turkey. (All countries in the European Union combined produce 1.75 million tons.) Smaller amounts of turkey are produced in Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean. At about 450,000 tons, Brazil is the largest turkey producer in South America.
In the U.S., we consume an average of 16.5 pounds of turkey per person per year. That about is about one-quarter of our chicken consumption. According to the National Turkey Federation, about 20% of all turkey (just over three pounds per person) is consumed on Thanksgiving Day.
It's worth taking special care in the selection of turkey! Several aspects of turkey selection will help you maximize your health benefits from this World's Healthiest Food. First, we recommend the purchase of fresh turkey. Technically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines allow use of the word "fresh" only when turkey has never been stored a temperature below 26°F (-3°C). (Otherwise, the term "frozen" or "previously frozen" would be required.) Additives like sodium erythorbate, MSG, and salt are not allowed on fresh turkey, and that's a major health advantage for you.
Second, we encourage the purchase of certified organic turkey. Federal organic standards require organic turkey to be raised on organic feed, providing you with a food that is far less likely to contain unwanted contaminants.
However, we also encourage you to go even further in your selection process and choose certified organic turkey that has also been pasture-raised. The terms "free ranging," "free roaming," and "cage free" as allowed on labeling by the USDA do not guarantee that the turkeys actually spent any routine time outdoors in a natural pasture setting. Unfortunately, neither does organic certification. While certified organic turkeys are required to have had "access" to the "outdoors," the actually amount of time spent outside is not specific in the organic regulations and neither is the quality of the space described as "outdoors." So we recommend that you select turkey that is not only certified organic but also pasture-raised. You will usually need to talk to your grocer or the turkey producer to obtain this information. l
One additional important note about organic turkey: don't assume that it won't be available in your local grocery. In a fascinating recent study on poultry purchasing, researchers found that 41% of consumers who had never bought organic turkey assumed that it would not be available in their local store and didn't even consider selecting it because of this assumption. In addition to the fact that many stores already carry organic turkey, you'll find that the members of the meat department staff in your local grocery are often willing to help make organic meats—including organic turkey—available to their customers.
Instead of purchasing skinned turkey breasts at the store to get the lowest fat form of turkey, purchase turkey breasts with the skin still intact. Wait to remove the skin from the turkey breasts after cooking. (In this way you'll improve the moisture, flavor, and aroma of your turkey while not significantly increasing the total fat content.)
However, not all individuals seek the lowest fat version of turkey. Provided that the turkey you select is both organic and pasture-raised, it is likely to contain high-quality fat, including a valuable amount of omega-3s. We realize that most people for personal health reasons will probably be seeking to avoid cuts of turkey that are higher in fat, higher in saturated fat, or higher in calories. However, if you are an individual who has room in your personal meal plan for higher amounts of calories and fats from turkey, you may not necessarily want to choose the lowest-fat version of organic, pasture-raised turkey. The chart below will give you a better idea about cuts of turkey and their fat-related content.
|Form of Chicken||Amount||Calories||Total Fat (g)||Saturated Fat (g)||Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio||Cholesterol (mg)|
|Breast without skin||4 ounces||153||0.84||0.27||10:1||94|
|Breast with skin||4 ounces||214||8.4||2.38||11.4:1||84|
|Leg with skin||4 ounces||236||11.14||3.47||13:1||96|
|Thigh with skin||4 ounces||178||9.68||3.01||13:1||70|
* At present, there is simply insufficient research data to provide an accurate chart for this cut-by-cut, fat-related nutrient content in turkeys who were pasture-raised.
We'd also like to mention a few tips related to the purchase of ground turkey. Just like whole turkey, we encourage the purchase of certified organic and pasture-raised ground turkey since organic standards require organic turkey to be raised on organic feed and since pasture-raising will provide you with greater nutrient benefits. Due to the prohibition of synthetic pesticides and other unwanted contaminants in organic regulations, organic ground turkey (just like organic whole turkey) will also provide you with a food that is far less likely to contain unwanted contaminants.
However, even with organic ground turkey, be careful when reading those prominent labeling claims like "95% fat-free." Those claims are based on the weight of the food, not on the nutrient content. When possible, look on the back of the packaging for a Nutrition Facts Panel, and check serving size and actual grams of total fat and saturated fat per serving. We've seen organic ground turkey that contains 9 grams of fat and 180 calories in 4 ounces, making it 45% fat in terms of calories. This same ground turkey also contained 2.5 grams of saturated fat, or about 13% of the daily limit. For many people (although not everyone), that amount of total fat and saturated fat in a small serving of turkey could be difficult to blend in with an overall balanced diet. Yet we've also seen organic ground turkey that only contained 2 grams of fat, 0.5 grams of saturated fat, and 130 calories in 4 ounces. That second product was only 14% fat in terms of calories—an easier amount to incorporate into an overall diet that is balanced in terms of calories and fat.
Safe handling of turkey is very important! We encourage you to take special care with this food. When you purchase raw turkey, try to make the grocery store your last stop before heading home. When you arrive back home, promptly get your turkey into the refrigerator. In addition, it's worth checking your refrigerator's temperature if you have never done so. A temperature of 40°F/4°C or below is needed for raw turkey safety. Turkey should also be stored in the coldest section of your refrigerator (usually at the bottom, in the back). If the store packaging is intact and secure, store it this way since this will reduce the amount of handling. (The only exception being that if you buy a whole turkey with giblets, it's important to remove the giblets and store them in another container and then rewrap the turkey). Yet, if the packaging is not secure, and it seems as if the turkey liquids will leak, rewrap it securely before storing. This is very important to make sure that the turkey does not contaminate other foods in the refrigerator.
Refrigerated raw turkey can keep for one or two days while cooked turkey will keep for about three-to-four days. Remember to always store the turkey meat separately from any stuffing or gravy you have prepared.
Be very careful when handling raw turkey that it does not come in contact with other foods, especially those that will be served uncooked. Wash the cutting board, utensils, and your hands very well with hot soapy water after handling the turkey.
If your recipe requires marinating, you should always do so in the refrigerator as turkey is very sensitive to heat, which can increase the chances of spoilage. When defrosting a frozen turkey, do so in the refrigerator and not at room temperature. Put the turkey on a plate to collect any liquid drippings.
Several consumer watchdog organizations in the U.S. have reported frequent contamination of raw turkey - especially raw ground turkey—with unwanted bacteria, including E. coli, Enterococcus, and Staphylococcus. (Similar problems have been identified with raw chicken.) For example, one recent study showed over half of all raw turkey samples to contain the bacterium Enterococcus durans. Furthermore, due to the routine use of antibiotics in conventional raising of turkeys, bacteria found on raw turkey have also shown greater antibiotic resistance than expected. One recent study compared organic turkey to conventional turkey, analyzing not only the bacterial content but also the degree of antibiotic resistance. The researchers found that even though the bacterial counts were often similar in conventional versus organic turkey, the degree of antibiotic resistance was significantly higher in bacteria found on the conventional turkey.
If you decide to include turkey in your meal plan, the best way to address these contamination concerns is to use the utmost care in handling and storing turkey and fully cook turkey before you consume it. For more details on proper handling and storing, please see our How to Select and Store and Tips for Preparing and Cooking.
An increasing number of consumers have raised questions about the quality of life for turkeys, and a variety of different third-party animal welfare organizations have started to offer certification for turkey producers who would like to display some label on their packaging that address animal welfare issues. In general animal welfare and humane treatment issues include:
Unfortunately, current labeling and certification standards do not provide any easy way to assure humane treatment of turkeys when purchasing this food. Like assurance of pasture-raising, assurance of humane treatment is an issue that will require you to follow-up with your grocer or directly with the turkey producer.
Turkey, pasture-raised, light meat, roasted
GI: very low
|vitamin B3||13.32 mg||83||9.0||excellent|
|protein||34.17 g||68||7.4||very good|
|selenium||34.25 mcg||62||6.7||very good|
|vitamin B6||0.92 mg||54||5.8||very good|
|phosphorus||260.82 mg||37||4.0||very good|
|pantothenic acid||1.02 mg||20||2.2||good|
|vitamin B2||0.23 mg||18||1.9||good|
|vitamin B12||0.42 mcg||18||1.9||good|
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%