HEALTHY LIVING
11/18/2012 10:39 am ET

Thanksgiving Turkey: 6 Tips For Buying A Healthier Bird


By Tamar Haspel

Thanksgiving is just a couple weeks away, and as you plan the menu (please, nothing with marshmallows) and plot your strategy (teenagers at the kids' table!), you should also give a thought to your bird.

Not how you're going to cook it -- how it's doing. Right now. As we speak, the centerpiece of your Thanksgiving table is walking, gobbling and growing on a farm somewhere. Do you know where?

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Turkey farms run the gamut from the conventional, where birds are closely confined, fed antibiotics and growing agents and denied access to fresh air or sunshine, to the less conventional, where they're allowed to run around, go outside and eat feed that's all actual food.

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.

Convinced? If you're looking to find an unconventional bird, Local Harvest is a place to start to find a small farm near you. There are also some bigger operations with significant retail distribution:

Many farms sell out early, but there are lots of birds still not spoken for. Speak for one.

I know what you're thinking. Speak for one, and mortgage the house. And some heritage birds do sport double-digit per-pound price tags. But there are other options. Whole Foods Market makes sure all their turkeys enjoy minimum lifestyle standards, with no crowding or cages, and no antibiotics or animal by-products in their feed; birds that meet those standards go for $1.89 a pound. Whole Foods also has a range of heritage, heirloom, free-range and organic birds at all price points, topping out at $5.99 a pound.

If you're trying to feed a big family on a small budget, though, price is always an issue. If a more expensive bird breaks the bank, work with what doesn't. Here's what to look for in a supermarket turkey:

Buy A Healthier Turkey

Is there something else on the label that you're wondering about? Like, say, "Zabiah Halal" (that's handled per Islamic law)? Check the USDA definitions. If it's not on this list, it's marketing fluff and you can safely ignore it.

Whatever turkey you choose, when the big day comes and you're thinking about all you're thankful for, take a moment to give thanks for your bird.

"6 Tips For Buying A Healthier Turkey" originally appeared on Health.com

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