Give Thanks, for This?
Back when the Native Americans and Pilgrims broke bread over their first Thanksgiving dinner, they were celebrating their first successful harvest, which they had toiled over all summer. Nowadays, we get to give thanks to food companies, who "toil" all year to invent "convenience" foods that make Thanksgiving dinner prep easy and effortless. And what do we have to give thanks for? Trans fats, food dyes, pesticides, and preservatives that can send you into kidney failure. Factor in what poor turkeys undergo, and you've got a dinner that few of us can really be thankful for. Fortunately, the movement towards healthier, more sustainable cuisine has not passed Thanksgiving by without leaving its mark. For all the disgusting Thanksgiving-themed creations that line store shelves, there's an organic alternative that's just as tasty.
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The Problem: The overuse of antibiotics in crowded, manure-ridden industrial farming warehouses is creating hard-to-kill superbugs that can harm—or kill—humans. Chew on this turkey statistic: The most recently released retail meat sampling arm of the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System found that a strain of Salmonella in one sample of ground turkey was resistant to every single antibiotic tested. "The chances of successfully treating an infection with that bug are extremely poor," explains Keeve Nachman, PhD, assistant scientist and director of the Farming for the Future at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Another gross-out factor? The arsenic-based drug nitarsone is still approved for use in nonorganic turkeys.
The Fix: While proper cooking kills most germs, routine meat testing shows that you may come into contact with dangerous bacteria more than you realize. To lower your risk of buying a contaminated turkey, purchase your bird from a local farmer who raises a small flock without using antibiotic drugs. If you purchase your holiday bird from the supermarket, opt for an organic version—several studies suggest your risk of coming into contact with superbugs is lower with organic.
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The Problem: More than 248 million turkeys were grown and slaughtered in the United States in 2011, with most coming from industrialized concentrated animal-feeding operations, or CAFOs. This factory-farming system creates a whopping 4.8 billion pounds of manure a year and relies on intensely crossbred birds that could never survive in nature. In fact, they grow so fast that many die of heart failure or suffer bone fractures before slaughter. They aren't even able to reproduce naturally. Not a good life.
"Factory turkeys are all hybrid dead-end birds and will die if not processed," says sustainable farmer Frank Reese, owner of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch. "The hybrid obese turkey suffers greatly because of its inability to support its weight on its undersized skeletal system."
The Fix: If you're in charge of preparing the Thanksgiving turkey, consider spending more on a heritage breed, original breeds that have long been known for great taste. Industrial farms don't raise them because they grow too slowly and farmers have to spend more on feed. Because of this, many heritage breeds have become rare and threatened. It may sound strange, but by eating them, you're supporting farmers who will help keep these beautiful breeds from going extinct. Visit the Local Harvest online store to purchase a heritage breed turkey.
Read More: Use celebrity vegan Alicia's Silverstone's tips to Cook the Kindest Thanksgiving Meal of Your Life!
The Problem: Artificial food dyes, found in everything from pie filling to cranberry sauce to bread, are made from petroleum ingredients and are super-cheap ways to make food look fresher than it really is. The problem is some food dyes are linked to hyperactive behavior and sometimes contaminated with carcinogenic material. Check gravy, cranberry sauce, juices, and even dinner roll ingredient lists for hidden food dyes.
The Fix: If you aren't able to cook everything from scratch, look for organic processed foods. The strict certification bans the use of artificial food dyes; instead, added colors come from things like spices and berry, beet, and carrot juices.
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The Problem: Based on some of the ingredients, you'd think they'd be selling boxed stuffing in science experiment stores. Conventional boxed stuffing may seem like a godsend when time's ticking away before Thanksgiving dinner, but many familiar varieties are hiding some unappetizing secrets. For instance, popular brands contain questionable ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate, or MSG, a flavor-enhancing ingredient that triggers migraines and hunger in some people. Look out for heart-damaging trans fats, artificial flavors, and propyl gallate, a shelf stabilizer that has been linked to cancer. Center for Science in the Public Interest lists propyl gallate as an ingredient to avoid.
The Fix: Try this festive, Thanksgiving cranberry stuffing recipe, or opt for organic boxed stuffing, such as Arrowhead Mills' Organic Savory Herb Stuffing Mix, to avoid potentially harmful artificial ingredients.
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The Problem: The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pesticide Data Program has turned up traces of 37 different pesticides on potato samples. These include known and suspected carcinogens, along with neurotoxic and bee-killing chemicals. Potatoes routinely turn up on Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list of chemical-laden produce items. Many pesticides are systemic, meaning they are taken up inside of the plant.
The Fix: Since potatoes are often routinely sprayed with chemicals, it's best to opt for organic versions. If your farmer's market is still open, look for fun heirloom varieties like All Blue and whip up blue mashed potatoes!
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The Problem: Canned versions of pumpkin pie filling, cranberry jelly, and vegetables pervade the holiday, and that means so does bisphenol A, or BPA, the chemical used in the epoxy resins that line canned goods. The chemical has been linked to heart disease, obesity, sperm damage, and even brain cancer, among dozens of other problems. According to a 2009 study from the University of Texas, canned green beans contain the highest BPA residues.
The Fix: Opt for fresh or frozen vegetables over canned whenever possible. And try your hand at fresh cranberry sauce rather than buying canned cranberry jelly.
Read More: The New Scary Threat in Canned Soup
The Problem: Turkeys are hard to cook. They can dry out and taste not so great. The food industry's fix? Inject them full of saltwater or a solution containing potassium or phosphate food additives so they become nearly impossible to overcook. However, those solutions can pose problems to people who need to cut back on sodium—some "enhanced" meats, as they're called, contain as much salt as an order of fast-food french fries. And doctors are beginning to think that all the phosphates added to processed foods are resulting in increased rates of heart disease and chronic kidney disease. About 30 percent of poultry products on store shelves are "enhanced," according to the USDA.
The Fix: Avoid any turkey with the words "enhanced," "self-basting," or "marinated in natural broth solution" anywhere on the packaging. You can also check the Nutrition Facts panel. Non-enhanced turkey typically contains between 55 and 65 milligrams of sodium. If the sodium count is any higher than that, it's likely the bird contains extra sodium or phosphorous. Or go organic; although the USDA allows these additives in turkeys labeled "all-natural," phosphate, potassium, and other brining solutions are not allowed in certified-organic turkeys.
Read More: Cook the Tastiest Turkey Ever!
The Problem: Domestic chemically grown cranberries contain as many as 13 different residues of pesticides known to cause cancer, hormone disruption, or neurological problems. They're so contaminated, the nonprofit Organic Center says they're among the domestically grown fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest pesticide-exposure risk. Not only that, but according to the Rodale Institute, another organic research institution, cranberry bogs are often grandfathered in under federal and state clean water acts, which means they can discharge their pesticide-heavy water into nearby bodies of water without first cleaning it up.
The Fix: Buy organic! Organic cranberries are getting easier to find in grocery stores, but if you can't find any, order some online through LocalHarvest.org.
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The Problem: Two words: trans fats. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, the source of trans fats, make rolls flaky, and while many restaurants and home chefs have switched to trans fat–free oils in their baking, most manufacturers refuse to give them up in favor of healthier alternatives. Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils are used even in "reduced fat" products. And if that's not bad enough, some brands of premade rolls get their golden hue not from the natural process of baking or from whole grains but from Red 40 and Yellow 5, two artificial food colorings linked to hyperactivity in children.
The Fix: You can do all the prep work for these Refrigerator Dinner Rolls the night before, and they take just 13 minutes to bake on your big day. Use organic grass-fed butter to get an extra dose of omega-3 fatty acids. But if you're in need of a convenient premade roll, try the Immaculate Baking Company's truly trans fat–free crescent rolls or biscuits.
Read More: Want more DIY cooking tips? Preorder your copy of Cook This, Not That: Skinny Comfort Foods, due out this December!