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Talking Turkey

By Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN

Around this time of year, clients often have questions about turkey—America’s favorite holiday bird. Here are the facts behind some common turkey lore.

Brining Leads to a Juicier Bird
True. Muscle fibers contract when heated, squeezing out internal juices. The salt in brine breaks down muscle proteins so the fibers lose some of their ability to contract. A brined turkey, therefore, retains more internal moisture, leading to juicier meat. Soaking the bird in liquid brine will do the trick, but it also will increase water in the cells, so the finished product will be plump but watery and possibly bland. Many experts recommend using a dry brine. This is accomplished by putting salt in the cavity, rubbing salt under the skin, and letting the bird sit, uncovered, in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. (Brining longer yields even better results, but the bird should be covered loosely with plastic wrap or cheesecloth to prevent moisture loss if brining for more than 24 hours.) Kosher, enhanced, or self-basting turkeys already are treated with salt and shouldn’t be brined.1

Eating Turkey Makes You Sleepy
False. Turkey is one of the higher sources of the essential amino acid tryptophan; it's converted to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which may be related to the promotion of slow-wave sleep. But, while ingesting tryptophan alone will increase serotonin levels in the brain, eating turkey will not. This is because turkey has lots of other amino acids that compete with tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier, and not much turkey tryptophan makes it to the brain. Add all of the carb-rich holiday meal sides and desserts, however, and things can change. The insulin released in response to carbohydrate intake helps both glucose and amino acids move into tissues. Since most tryptophan is bound to albumin in the bloodstream and doesn’t go into the tissues, it’s free to move into the brain now that it’s no longer competing with those other amino acids for a ride across the blood-brain barrier.2

Tryptophan also is a precursor to melatonin, another sleep-associated hormone. But here, again, the turkey tryptophan doesn’t necessarily have an impact. Melatonin synthesis depends on the presence of certain enzymes, not an increase in tryptophan levels.2

So it’s not the turkey alone that causes drowsiness, but the entire big meal—perhaps literally; stretching of the small intestine, protein-fat loading of the stomach, and blood leaving the brain and muscles for the gastrointestinal tract are all known to induce sleepiness.2

Turkey Dark Meat Has as Much Fat as Beef
True. Eating turkey drumsticks or thighs with the skin on can deliver more fat than an equivalent amount of beef chuck eye roast or broiled sirloin steak. Even without the skin, grams of fat are still higher in the dark meat than the steak (See Table).

Since many people turn to dark meat because it’s moister, encourage brining and be careful not to overcook the bird to ensure the skinless breast is tender and juicy. Truth be told, saving a few grams of fat by giving up that turkey leg isn’t going to make much of a difference in a typical over-the-top holiday meal. Encourage clients to find side dishes that are delicious without ingredients like cream, cheese, and sugar; practice moderation when filling their plates; and choose just one piece of a favorite dessert.

It’s Unsafe to Cook Stuffing Inside the Turkey
True. Raw poultry may contain Salmonella bacteria, so it’s essential to cook it to a temperature of at least 165° F. Stuffing (dressing) is porous; it soaks up juices released from the turkey as it cooks. This makes the stuffing taste great, but it also means any Salmonella bacteria will survive unless the stuffing in the center of the turkey reaches at least 165° F. Not only is that hard to measure, but most likely it will result in a dry, overcooked turkey. A safer bet is to cook the stuffing separately, then stuff it into the cavity while the turkey rests after cooking.3 The stuffing will soak up the juices released during the resting phase, and clients can bring the turkey to the table safely, overflowing with golden stuffing.

By understanding food science, nutrition professionals can make the holiday turkey safer, healthier, and tastier. 

— Judith C. Thalheimer, RD, LDN, is a freelance nutrition writer, a community educator, and the principal of JTRD Nutrition Education Services.


1. López-Alt JK. The quick and dirty guide to brining chicken or turkey. Serious Eats website. http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/11/quick-and-dirty-guide-to-brining-turkey-chicken-thanksgiving.html

2. Ballantyne C. Does turkey make you sleepy? Scientific American website. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-does-turkey-make-you-sleepy/#. Published November 21, 2007.

3. Brown A. Stuffing your turkey: just don’t do it. Alton Brown website. http://altonbrown.com/dont-stuff-your-thanksgiving-turkey/. Published November 19, 2014.