Health & Fitness

By Leslie Rice Hart

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Gooble, gooble! Here comes the holiday season and that means lots of turkey. Before you buy your bird and cook it up here are some helpful hints and facts that might be of interest to you.

Have you wondered why you feel kind of tired after a Thanksgiving dinner with all its trimmings? Doing my research for this piece, I found out that L-Trytophan, an amino acid naturally occurring in the turkey, is the reason. L-Trytophan has a sleep inducing effect because it contributes to our body’s production of serotonin – a neurotransmitter that produces a calming effect and helps regulate our sleep. But the blame doesn’t only fall on the turkey. In order for L-Tryptophan to give that drowsy feeling, it has to be taken on an empty stomach with no other amino acids present. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein found in animal protein such as turkey. L-Tryptophan wouldn’t make us sleepy with the other amino acids present. But how many other kinds of meat do we usually eat at a Thanksgiving meal?

A meal being rich in carbohydrates additionally increases the level of Trytophan leading to further serotonin synthesis in the brain. Without getting too technical, our body’s insulin (a hormone, which is released by the pancreas after eating stimulating cells to absorb and store nutrients from the bloodstream) is increased with a high-carb meal. Insulin promotes the transport of the other amino acids into the muscle cells, leaving Trytophan in the bloodstream.
There are other contributors to the drowsiness. L-Tryptophan is not the only culprit. Most Thanksgiving meals have their fair share of fat. Fat takes a lot of energy to digest. Our bodies tell us we need more bloodflow in the digestive system to help tackle (and digest) the fat we’ve just so happily ingested. With the bloodflow concentrated for digestion purposes, it makes our bodies less energetic, which makes us feel sluggish. The same thing happens if we simply overeat. Our bodies are working overtime to digest all the food that we have consumed within a relatively short period of time. Finally, if you throw in a holiday cocktail (or two) in the mix then it’s no wonder we feel lethargic.

In fact, the turkey is one of the healthiest parts of the Thanksgiving feast, depending of course on the turkey and how it is prepared.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the most asked about subject that comes in on their hotline is turkey. A question that is frequently asked is about the antibiotic and hormone use in turkeys.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) work together in approving drugs for use in livestock and poultry. Antibiotics may be given to prevent disease and increase feed efficiency but an elimination period of the antibiotic is required, giving ample time to assure that no residues of the antibiotic are present in the turkey’s system before they are exterminated. FSIS randomly samples poultry at the “sacrifice” and tests for residues. Under the Federal meat and poultry inspection laws, any raw meat or poultry shown to contain residues above established tolerance levels is considered contaminated and must be condemned. NO HORMONES have been approved for use in turkeys.

All turkeys found in retail stores are either inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or by state systems which have standards equivalent to the federal government Grade A is the highest quality of turkey and the only grade you should see at a reputable retail store. Grade A indicates that the poultry products are virtually free from defects such as bruises, discolorations, and feathers. For whole turkeys and parts with skin on, there will be no tears in the skin with a good covering of fat under the skin. There should be no exposed flesh that could dry out during cooking and the turkey should be very meaty. Additives are not allowed on fresh turkeys or those cut into parts.

Farmers of Free Range or Free Roaming turkeys must demonstrate to the USDA’s food safety agency (FSIS) that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside in order to have these labels.

Though hens (female turkeys) are smaller than toms, their male counterparts, they are both equally as tasty and tender if prepared properly.

Turkey is kept cold during distribution to retail stores to prevent or slow the growth of bacteria and to increase its shelf life. Always put turkey products in a refrigerator that is at 40°F, or freeze at 0°F. Freezer storage ensures best quality. If frozen continuously, turkey products will be safe indefinitely.

The label fresh may only be placed on raw poultry that has never been below 26°F. Poultry kept at 0°F or below must be labeled frozen. This is not for a safety issue. It is perfectly fine to freeze turkeys. This label is more for the consumer’s benefit, knowing exactly what they will be purchasing.

The USDA recommends three ways to defrost turkeys: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Never defrost turkey on the counter. It is safest to thaw in the refrigerator. Give a full day for every 5 lbs of turkey to thaw. Turkey can be defrosted in cold water either in its packaging or in an airtight, leak-proof bag. Change the water every 30 minutes to assure the water is cold. When using the microwave to defrost, make sure the turkey is cooked immediately after the microwave thawing process. Most likely some of the turkey has cooked in the microwave and you don’t want partially-cooked poultry to sit around exposed to bacteria.

When cooking a whole turkey, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature in the innermost part of the thigh. The internal temperature should reach a minimum of 180°F.

For safety purposes and thorough cooking of the turkey, it is recommended to cook stuffing outside the bird. If stuffing the bird, the center of the stuffing must reach 165°F. Turkey breast should reach 170°F. Drumsticks, thighs and wings should be cooked until they reach an internal temperature of 180°F. When there is a pink color in safely cooked turkey, it is due to the hemoglobin in tissues which can form a heat-stable color.

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Finally, it is not necessary to baste your turkey. Most turkeys are pre-basted, with broth already deep inside the meat, making it more moist and tender. Opening the oven door over and over again to baste the turkey causes the heat to escape into the kitchen and extends the cooking time.

Hopefully this answered some questions you might have pondered or just gave you some F.Y.I. to have a safe and delicious holiday meal.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Originally published November 2005
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