Food of the Week: Turkey Featured

Authors: The World's Healthiest Foods

The physical health of the turkeys prior to slaughter can also make a significant difference in nutrient content. Researchers have recently shown that meat from turkeys fed plant oils containing alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, the basic building block for other more complicated omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA) will only contain these more complicated omega-3 fatty acids if the turkeys were healthy prior to slaughter. In other words, if the turkeys were not in good health at the time when they consumed feed with ALA, their bodies were not capable of metabolizing ALA into EPA and DHA and those more complicated omega-3 fatty acids were not found in the final turkey meat.

WHFoods Recommendations

One of the great advantages of turkey is that much of the fat can be easily removed making it a very lean source of protein. We recommend roasting turkey to keep it moist and bring out is best flavor. Turkey dries out quickly so it is important not to overcook it; it is also important not to undercook it. For more on the Healthiest Way of Cooking Turkey see the How to Enjoy section below. While usually associated with the holidays, turkey can be enjoyed year round.

Nutrients in
4.00 oz-wt (113.40 grams)

Nutrient%Daily Value




vitamin B342.5%

vitamin B632%




Calories (153)8%

This chart graphically details the %DV that a serving of Turkey provides for each of the nutrients of which it is a good, very good, or excellent source according to our Food Rating System. Additional information about the amount of these nutrients provided by Turkey can be found in the Food Rating System Chart. A link that takes you to the In-Depth Nutritional Profile for Turkey, featuring information over 80 nutrients, can be found under the Food Rating System Chart.

Health Benefits

Health research on turkey has been somewhat limited. While turkey has typically been included in studies on poultry in general, the much greater consumption of chicken has tended to overshadow research on poultry. Nevertheless, there are some turkey benefits that are important for you to consider when thinking about the place of this food in your meal plan.

Multiple studies have pointed to key differences in the health risk associated with high intake of red meats like beef versus high intake of white meats like turkey. In the case of red meats, high intake has been associated with increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and increased risk of colon cancer. High intake of white meats—including turkey—has not been associated with these health problems in a majority of studies.

We believe that it's always a good idea to avoid excessive intake of meats, regardless of whether they are white or red. As animal foods, meats never contain dietary fiber, are typically less concentrated in flavonoids, carotenoids, and other health-supportive nutrients than plant foods, and often contain significant amounts of long-chain saturated fat. However, if you do end up having a large portion of meat, we believe that the research shows greater health safety in the case of white versus red meats.

As a low carb food, turkey naturally scores low on the glycemic index scale and should be regarded as a food that can be helpful in regulating blood sugar. It's relatively high protein concentration is an important factor in this regard, since protein helps food keep a steady pace as it moves through your digestive tract—not too fast and not too slow. One recent study on a very small sample of young men has documented the ability of turkey to help keep insulin production in a healthy range following the consumption of turkey-containing meals.

There has been some confusion in media publications about the role of turkey as a sleep-promoting or relaxation-promoting food due to its tryptophan content. From a research standpoint, we think it's important to set the record straight in this regard. The amino acid tryptophan is clearly a nutrient of special importance when it comes to sleep. That's because the hormone melatonin (MLT) helps regulate your sleep and wake cycles, and it's made from the amino acid tryptophan. Your pineal gland is the place where tryptophan gets converted into MLT, and this process seems to become less reliable as we age. It can also get thrown out of kilter by changes in our exposure to daylight and darkness (for example, as might occur with a person working odd job hours, like swing shifts and graveyard shifts). What's generally misunderstood about turkey, however, is the amount of tryptophan it contains. Turkey is actually very similar to shrimp, tuna, snapper, halibut, chicken, lamb, beef, and salmon in its tryptophan content, and there is no research evidence to show that it helps increase MLT production. When people feel more sleepy or relaxed after eating turkey at large holiday meals like Thanksgiving and Christmas, what's most likely happening from a physiologic standpoint has nothing to do with the turkey. What happening is most likely the result of general food over-consumption, including over-consumption of higher-carb foods that were included in the meal.


There is probably no other food that evokes images of celebration, family, friends and giving thanks than turkey since it has long been associated with holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. Yet, recently turkey has added something more to its repertoire than being a holiday food. It is now thought of as a delicious and nutritious meat that can be enjoyed on any day of the year. Its rise in popularity has also been spurred by the increased availability of individual turkey pieces such as breasts, tenderloins, cutlets and ground turkey. These alternatives to cooking a whole turkey have made it more convenient for people to easily incorporate turkey into their diets.


Turkeys are native to the United States and Mexico and are a food that was part of the traditional culture of the native Americans. Christopher Columbus brought turkeys back with him to Europe upon his return from the New World and by the 16th century, turkeys were being domestically raised in Italy, France and England. At first, they were reserved for the banquet tables of royalty, but their enjoyment soon became more widespread throughout societies.

Turkey has long been associated with American history. Think turkey and images of Pilgrims and Thanksgiving dinners are evoked. Benjamin Franklin must have felt that the turkey was all-American because he wanted it to be our national bird and was upset when the eagle was chosen instead. But the turkey as an icon of America and freedom doesn't stop there—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin ate roasted turkey (well, space-food roasted turkey) as part of their first meal on the moon.

Today, the countries that consume the most turkey per person include Israel, the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands.

How to Select and Store

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 decision-making process and select certified organic turkey that has had genuine access to pasture. The words "free ranging" or "free roaming" as allowed on labeling by the USDA do not provide enough assurance about turkey quality since poultry are only required to have access to the outside in order for these terms to be used on packaging labels. "Access to the outside" might not involve any natural pasture access whatsoever or any reasonable outdoor lifestyle for the turkey. So look for organic turkey that is described as "pasture fed," or contact the producer to find out exactly how their birds are treated.

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 provide yourself with 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 and flavor and aroma of your turkey while not significantly increasing the total fat content.)

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 ground turkey, since organic standards require organic turkey to be raised on organic feed. Organic ground turkey (like organic whole turkey) will 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, 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, and a much better choice for blending into a balanced diet.

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 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.

Tips for Preparing and Cooking

The Healthiest Way of Cooking Turkey

We recommend roasting turkey to bring out its best flavor although you will have to allot several hours for cooking.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Rub 3 TBS lemon juice and some salt and pepper on the outside of the turkey. Then lift up the skin where you can and rub these seasonings directly on the flesh.

Place the turkey breast side down in a shallow roasting pan. Roast unstuffed turkey for 15 minutes for each pound.

At 30 to sixty minutes before it is done, measure the internal temperature with a thermometer. (The range reflects the differing size of the turkey; do so at 30 minutes for smaller turkeys and 60 minutes for larger ones.) When it reaches 125°F/74°F, you should turn the turkey and then increase the oven temperature to

400°F/200°C for the remaining roasting time.

When the turkey is done, its internal temperature must read 165°-170°F/74°-77°C when the thermometer is inserted into the mid-thigh. When it is done remove it to a platter, and let it sit for 15-20 minutes before carving to allow the juices to be redistributed and the meat to become moist throughout.

If you want optimal safety, it is better to cook turkey stuffing outside of the turkey, for the simple reason that contamination of the stuffing with microorganisms from the raw turkey is not possible if the stuffing is cooked separately. However, many people look forward to the special flavor of stuffing cooked inside the turkey, and if you decide to use that procedure, please make sure that the center of your stuffing is tested with a cooking thermometer and reaches a minimum of 165°F/74°C.

For details, see Holiday Turkey with Rice Stuffing & Gravy with Fresh Herbs.

How to Enjoy

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

  • Use ground turkey instead of ground beef in chili con carne recipes. (See our special tips on ground turkey selection provided in the How to Select and Store section.)
  • On a bed of romaine lettuce, serve diced turkey, cooked cubed sweet potatoes, cranberries and walnuts. Toss with a light vinaigrette for a salad that emanates the flavors of Thanksgiving.
  • Use ground turkey to make turkey burgers or turkey meat loaf. (Once again, see our special tips on ground turkey selection provided earlier.)
  • Say olé to turkey burritos. Place cooked turkey pieces on a corn tortilla, sprinkle with shredded cheese and diced tomatoes and onions. Broil for a few minutes until hot.
  • Turkey salad can be prepared numerous ways and can be served for lunch or dinner. One of our favorite recipes is to combine the turkey with celery, leeks, dried apricots and almonds.

WHFoods Recipes That Feature Turkey

Individual Concerns

Animal protein is a significant source of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. These two compounds have been associated with development of various chronic diseases, including heart disease and some forms of cancer.

When using meat in cooking, treat meat as a side dish that compliments a meal of vegetables, grains or legumes. Portion sizes of meat should not be more than 3 to 4 ounces. Almost all of the fat in turkey is found in the skin, and dark meat is higher in fat than the light meat. Check labels carefully if you use turkey cold cuts. Food processors may combine dark meat of the animal along with organ meats like heart and gizzards, which makes the product higher in fat.

Turkey and Purines

Turkey contains naturally occurring substances called purines. Purines are commonly found in plants, animals, and humans. In some individuals who are susceptible to purine-related problems, excessive intake of these substances can cause health problems. Since purines can be broken down to form uric acid, excess accumulation of purines in the body can lead to excess accumulation of uric acid. The health condition called "gout" and the formation of kidney stones from uric acid are two examples of uric acid-related problems that can be related to excessive intake of purine-containing foods. For this reason, individuals with kidney problems or gout may want to limit or avoid intake of purine-containing foods such as turkey.

Nutritional Profile

Turkey is an excellent source of protein, providing 68% of the DV in a four-ounce portion. Along with protein, turkey is a very good source of immune-supportive selenium and heart-healthy niacin and vitamin B6. In addition, it is a good source of energy-enhancing phosphorus and immune-supportive zinc. Turkey can also be a source of other important nutrients, depending on the diet that was consumed by the animals. For example, it is possible for turkey to contain valuable amounts of omega-3 fatty acids if omega-3 containing fats were regularly included in the animals' diet and the animal was in good health during its life.

For an in-depth nutritional profile click here: Turkey.

In-Depth Nutritional Profile

In addition to the nutrients highlighted in our ratings chart, an in-depth nutritional profile for Turkeyis also available. This profile includes information on a full array of nutrients, including carbohydrates, sugar, soluble and insoluble fiber, sodium, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, amino acids and more.

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

In order to better help you identify foods that feature a high concentration of nutrients for the calories they contain, we created a Food Rating System. This system allows us to highlight the foods that are especially rich in particular nutrients. The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good, or good source (below the chart you will find a table that explains these qualifications). If a nutrient is not listed in the chart, it does not necessarily mean that the food doesn't contain it. It simply means that the nutrient is not provided in a sufficient amount or concentration to meet our rating criteria. (To view this food's in-depth nutritional profile that includes values for dozens of nutrients - not just the ones rated as excellent, very good, or good - please use the link below the chart.) To read this chart accurately, you'll need to glance up in the top left corner where you will find the name of the food and the serving size we used to calculate the food's nutrient composition. This serving size will tell you how much of the food you need to eat to obtain the amount of nutrients found in the chart. Now, returning to the chart itself, you can look next to the nutrient name in order to find the nutrient amount it offers, the percent Daily Value (DV%) that this amount represents, the nutrient density that we calculated for this food and nutrient, and the rating we established in our rating system. For most of our nutrient ratings, we adopted the government standards for food labeling that are found in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "Reference Values for Nutrition Labeling." Read more background information and details of our rating system.
4.00 oz-wt
113.40 grams
153.09 calories
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
tryptophan 0.38 g 118.8 14.0 excellent
protein 34.09 g 68.2 8.0 excellent
selenium 36.40 mcg 52.0 6.1 very good
vitamin B3 8.50 mg 42.5 5.0 very good
vitamin B6 0.64 mg 32.0 3.8 very good
phosphorus 254.01 mg 25.4 3.0 good
choline 95.71 mg 22.5 2.6 good
zinc 1.97 mg 13.1 1.5 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
excellent DV>=75% OR
Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR
Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR
Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%
In-Depth Nutritional Profile forTurkey


  • Komprda T, Zelenka J, Fajmonová E et al. Arachidonic acid and long-chain n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid contents in meat of selected poultry and fish species in relation to dietary fat sources. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Aug 24;53(17):6804-12. 2005.
  • Micha R, Wallace SK and Mozaffarian D. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Circulation. 2010 Jun 1;121(21):2271-83. Epub 2010 May 17. 2010.
  • Pal S and Ellis V. The acute effects of four protein meals on insulin, glucose, appetite and energy intake in lean men. Circulation. 2010 Jun 1;121(21):2271-83. Epub 2010 May 17. 2010.
  • Rymer C and Givens DI. Effect of species and genotype on the efficiency of enrichment of poultry meat with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Lipids. 2006 May;41(5):445-51. 2006.
  • Schernhammer ES, Feskanich D, Niu C et al. Dietary correlates of urinary 6-sulfatoxymelatonin concentrations in the Nurses' Health Study cohorts. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Oct;90(4):975-85. Epub 2009 Aug 12. 2009.
  • Van Loo E, Caputo V, Nayga Jr. RM et al. Effect of Organic Poultry Purchase Frequency on Consumer Attitudes Toward Organic Poultry Meat. Journal of Food Science, Volume 75, Number 7, September 2010 , pp. S384-S397(14). 2010.
  • Verzelloni E, Tagliazucchi D and Conte A. From balsamic to healthy: traditional balsamic vinegar melanoidins inhibit lipid peroxidation during simulated gastric digestion of meat. Food Chem Toxicol. 2010 Aug-Sep;48(8-9):2097-102. Epub 2010 May 12. 2010.

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