Most health food buzz words are misleading . While a “free range” turkey might be slightly preferable to one from a major commercial brand like Butterball and Jennie-O the term is largely meaningless.
The USDA defines free range as a bird having “access” to the outside. So as long as there is a door on the warehouse where the animal was kept, it would qualify. There’s no requirement that the bird be kept outside, nor are there guidelines specifying that it be on grass while outside.
Don’t be fooled by the words “natural,“ “all natural,” and “naturally raised” either. The USDA has provided no legal definitions for these terms, nor has the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
An organic label on a turkey carries more weight. These birds were raised without antibiotics, growth hormones or other drugs and their feed was grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). An organic turkey is obviously preferable to its factory-farmed counterpart and is widely available at many local grocery stores. And though it’s feed is required to be organic, that feed almost always consists of soy and corn. This makes the birds less healthy and less nutritious.
If possible, look for a turkey that is not only certified organic but also pasture-raised. These animals roam green pasture, usually on a small family farm that rotates tracts of land with crops and other animals, moving them regularly. Researchers have examined the diets of turkeys (and chickens) who regularly spent time in pastures with leguminous plants like clovers and vetch. These pasture-based diets were found to increase the level of omega-3s in turkey meat and also to lower the ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s. While the overall ratio of omega-6:omega-3 in conventionally fed turkey meat averages approximately 10:1 or higher, this same ratio was lowered to approximately 7:1 as a result of pasture feeding.
A turkey’s natural diet consists of things like insects, grubs, acorns, pine seeds, tubers, bulbs, crabgrass, wild berries, alfalfa, clovers, and grass but most factory turkeys are fed soy to promote fast growth. Research has shown that when these animals are fed soy protein, it shows up in the tissues of the animals and in the yolks of the eggs they produce. And then it enters your body when you eat those foods. Why is that bad? Because soy may disrupt thyroid function, activate estrogen receptors, and stimulate cancer cell growth.
I’ve yet to find an organic, pastured, soy-free turkey in my local area but I did on Healthy Traditions, an online retailer where I purchase bulk coconut products. They source their poultry from a small Wisconsin farm that feeds its birds a blend of coconut pulp and other naturally-occurring nutrients. According to the website, coconut has been a traditional ingredient in poultry feed for hundreds, if not thousands of years in tropical regions.
Yes, my turkey cost quite a bit more than what you’d expect to pay at a supermarket, mostly due to the shipping charges. But based on my past experiences with pastured poultry, I’m confident the taste and texture will make it worth it and I know the superior nutrition will.
If you want to start planning for your next holiday, Rainbow Ranch Farms, Good Earth Farm, Slanker’s Grass Fed Meats, and Grow and Behold all offer online purchasing. There are two websites I recommend for finding small, pastured-centered farms in your local area: www.localharvest.org and www.eatwild.com.