Have you tasted a heritage turkey?

Updated 10:06 AM EST, Mon November 27, 2017
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Story highlights

Here's what it takes for a turkey to have the "heritage" title

"There are now more than 14,000 heritage turkeys in the US," one expert says

(CNN) —  

It’s the time of year when Grandma’s kitchen smells like pumpkin pie, golden leaves dance in the autumn breeze, and families have gobbled up turkeys on their Thanksgiving dinner tables.

About 46 million turkeys are eaten each year on the last Thursday in November. Yet those commercial turkeys aren’t quite the same poultry that settlers consumed in the 17th century.

Rather, heritage turkeys would be more similar – and they are a niche market, much like heritage tomatoes.

“Heritage turkeys are turkeys that have not been bred for industrial production,” said Phil Howard, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.

Turkeys were domesticated in Mexico 1,500 years ago. Some were taken to Europe by Spanish explorers in the 1500s.

Then, after the domestic turkey spread across Europe, colonists brought those European turkey breeds back to the Americas, where they crossed with American wild turkeys to become the ancestors of both commercial and heritage turkeys.

Over time, one commercial breed of turkey – the Broad Breasted White – has become preferred, partly because of its mostly white feathers, which wouldn’t leave unappetizing pigment spots on the meat. Meanwhile, the colorful feathers of heritage turkeys tend to leave such spots.

“For many decades, well over 99% of all turkeys produced in the US belong to this breed,” Howard said of the Broad Breasted White.

With so much focus on this commercial turkey, heritage turkeys – with their colorful feathers and scrawny size – declined in numbers.

In 1997, a census suggested there were only 1,335 heritage turkeys in the entire United States, Howard said. That census was conducted by The Livestock Conservancy, a group dedicated to protecting endangered livestock and poultry breeds from extinction.

“Since that time, interest in food that embodies non-industrial values, such as local, humane and pastured, has increased substantially. Along with increased awareness of the decline of heritage breeds, this has contributed to growing production and sales of heritage turkeys,” he said. “There are now more than 14,000 heritage turkeys in the US.”

To qualify as a heritage turkey, the bird must be reproduced through natural mating and have a slow to moderate growth rate, according to The Livestock Conservancy.

“They tolerate the outdoors, grow slowly and reproduce naturally. Most of these breeds have had standards since the late 1800s, and they include Bourbon Red, Narragansett and Bronze,” Howard said.

Unlike the heritage breeds, conventional commercial turkeys such as the Broad Breasted White are often bred to grow fast and big.

“A commercial bird, when you think about a hen turkey that you purchase at Thanksgiving time, they probably are between 12 and 14 weeks of age, and the advantage of this is, they grow fast and the meat is quite tender,” said R. Michael Hulet, associate professor of animal science at Pennsylvania State University.

Whereas, heritage birds would take longer to mature, Hulet said.

“Because of that, they don’t have as much breast meat yield. They have other yield of fine meat,” he said, adding that heritage turkeys also often have a hefty price tag. “Usually, they’ll be two or three times the price of a commercial bird.”

It also turns out that heritage and commercial turkeys differ in taste, Howard said. Of course, which is more delicious depends on your preference.

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“Keeping in mind that many people will prefer what they are accustomed to, blind tasting panels often prefer the taste of heritage turkeys and describe them as having a richer, almost gamey taste,” he said. “They also have much more dark meat than Broad Breasted White.”

So, between the two, would a commercial or heritage turkey be the healthier option for your Thanksgiving dinner? More research on turkeys and their nutrition content is needed to answer that question, Howard said.

“I am not aware of any studies, but for other livestock species, slower rates of growth and production on pasture are associated with higher nutrient levels,” he said. “Whether or not the differences are significant enough to affect human health remains contested.”