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Cooking a Healthier Thanksgiving Turkey

EWG Tips
Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The array of options for selecting and cooking your Thanksgiving turkey can make your head spin. Every cook has their preference – but many people may not realize that cooking methods can introduce potentially harmful chemicals or extra saturated fat into your bird. EWG is here to help, breaking down the pros and cons.

 

Roasting

This is the traditional way of cooking a turkey – in a roasting pan in the oven.

Pros:

  • Lower risk of harmful chemicals from smoke or plastics leaching into meat.
  • Government agencies and health experts recommend minimizing consumption of saturated fats. Since there’s less saturated fat in roasted than in fried poultry (see table below), this is our recommendation. Remember that poultry skin contains higher saturated fats than the meat alone, so make sure to limit skin consumption, however you cook it.

Cons:

  • Minimal to no health-related disadvantages to roasting turkey, compared to other cooking methods.

Conclusion: Roasting is the best way to minimize exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals and limit consumption of heart-unhealthy saturated fats.

 

Cooking Method

Skin Eaten?

Saturated Fat

(grams per 100g portion)

Chicken breast meat

Roasting, baking, broiling

No

0.791

Yes

2.172

Frying in oil

No

1.156

Yes

2.52

Boneless, skinless chicken breast

Grilled

No

0.992

Turkey light meat

Roasting

No

0.588

Yes

1.586

Infrared Oil-Less ‘Fryers’

These devices are marketed as an alternative to deep frying, but they’re basically just gas ovens you can use outdoors. So this is just another way to roast turkey.

Pros:

  • Lower risk of harmful chemicals from smoke or plastics leaching into meat.
  • The fat content should be the same as with traditional roasting methods.

Con:

  • At least one brand of oil-less fryer comes with the warnings that “combustion by-products produced when using this product contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm” and that it “contains chemicals, including lead and lead compounds, known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or reproductive harm” – but similar warnings appear on standard gas ovens.

Conclusion: Infrared oil-less fryers are a reasonable alternative to traditional roasting.

Grilling or Smoking

Grilling refers to cooking at a higher temperature over charcoal or gas. Smoking involves cooking at lower temperatures with wood smoke over charcoal or gas.

Pros:

  • Less saturated fat compared to fried poultry. The saturated fat content of grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast is between that of roasted and fried poultry.

Cons:

  • Both grilling and smoking can increase the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in meat. According to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, some PAHs are carcinogenic, and exposure can occur through consumption of grilled and smoked foods. In 2015, WHO classified processed meats, notably including smoked meats, as known human carcinogens because of their links to colorectal cancer.

Conclusions: EWG recommends minimizing exposure to PAHs by limiting the consumption of grilled and processed meat.

Deep-frying

This is a quick way to cook a turkey – frying the turkey in a pot of oil, usually peanut oil, over a large gas burner. It should be considered the option of last resort.

Pros:

  • There are no health-related advantages to deep frying compared to other cooking methods.

Cons:

  • Dangerous. The National Fire Prevention Association discourages the use of turkey fryers because they pose a serious risk to people and property. If you choose to deep-fry your turkey, follow these guidelines.
  • Adds extra saturated fat to an otherwise lean source of protein (see table above).
  • Turkey skin is prone to absorbing trans fat from the frying oil. Deep-frying at temperatures over 350 degrees with oils that contain trans fat will increase the amount of trans fat absorbed by the turkey. If you have turkey-skin lovers coming for dinner, roasting may be a better choice.

Conclusion: Drawing on guidelines from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services, EWG recommends minimizing excessive saturated fat intake by limiting consumption of deep-fried poultry and poultry skin. And be careful with all that hot oil!

Roasting in a Roasting Bag

This method is almost identical to traditional roasting except for one critical difference – you place your turkey inside a food-grade, heat-resistant plastic bag and then roast as usual. These bags are purported to reduce cook time, keep the meat especially moist and eliminate cleanup.

Pros:

  • No health-related advantages to using a roasting bag compared to other cooking methods.

Cons:

  • According to one study, low levels of plastics can migrate from roasting bags to turkey meat, skin and juices, although according to the study’s authors these levels non-hazardous.
  • Although these bags are marketed as BPA-free, that doesn’t mean they’re free of potentially harmful plastic additives like phthalates or BPA replacements.
  • Roasting bags can smoke, melt and burn if used improperly, and fumes produced by burning plastic can be toxic.

Conclusion: It’s best to avoid cooking and reheating food in plastics. Studies suggest the amounts of plastics and phthalates transferred from roasting bags to meat are low, but it’s best to avoid consuming any amount of plastics or phthalates if you can help it. Phthalates are common in household goods, foods and personal care products, so even if exposure from this source is low, your cumulative exposure could be high.

If you do use a roasting bag, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to avoid tainting your turkey with melting and burning plastic.

A quick note about herbs and spices

Studies suggest that herbs and spices can be contaminated with plasticizers that are transferred to meat during cooking. These contaminants may come from plastics used in herb and spice processing or the environment. Although it may be impossible to avoid contaminants from the environment, you may be able to limit your exposure to processing-derived contaminants by growing your own and limiting their contact with plastics, or by asking herb producers at farmers’ markets about their use of plastics.

Whatever method you choose for cooking your turkey, make sure it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F before serving – no one wants to kick off the holiday season with food poisoning!

 

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