The American penchant for foods with a perceived health benefit has elevated many items from their humble and traditional uses to new heights.
Turkey is one of them.
Once relegated to an obligatory appearance on holiday buffet tables, turkey, in its various forms--cut up parts, delicatessen meats, fresh and smoked sausage, kielbasa, ground meat and soon-to-be-released bacon-type breakfast strips--is showing up in all sorts of places. American per-capita consumption is up from 11.4 pounds in 1984 to 16.6 pounds in 1988, according to the National Turkey Federation.
Most of the attractiveness of turkey in recent years is its lower fat content and mild flavor--which makes it adaptable to a variety of seasonings and extends its compatibility with traditional and unusual ingredients alike.
But just how much nutrition is there in turkey?
Ounce for ounce, turkey compares favorably with beef and pork in terms of the amount of fat it contains, although dark meat tends to be slightly higher in fat than white.
A 3-ounce serving of cooked, skinless turkey breast has at least half the calories of lean beef or pork--about 129 calories--and a fraction of the total fat.
The same portion of beef or pork, depending upon the cut, can offer upwards of 12 grams of fat, while the turkey breast has only 2.6 grams total fat. Cholesterol content--thought to be of less concern to those monitoring heart health than other risk factors including total fat intake, family history and body mass index--is about the same for all forms of meat whether lean red or poultry.
Cholesterol figures for lean red meat and other poultry are 65 to 95 milligrams per 3 1/2-ounce serving and 69 to 89 milligrams for the same amount of turkey.
Still, turkey is considered an excellent choice for fat-watchers, provided that some caution is exercised, says Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian, who explained the importance of reading labels and comparing products for fat and cholesterol, instead of choosing foods for their "halo effect."
"When people start eating foods that have a healthy reputation they can get too much," said Tribole, media spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. "Portion control is the key."
Tribole pointed out that some people attach healthful qualities to certain foods--particularly those that appear to be inherently low in fat--then tend to overindulge on the items.
She explained, for example, that even though lean turkey breast meat is lower in fat than any other, processed by-products from other parts of the bird--such as frankfurters, bologna and salami--can be comparable to beef and pork cold cuts, containing up to 80% fat calories, depending upon the manufacturer. (The use of various parts of the bird including the skin and muscle are common practices, says the California Turkey Industry Board, which reports that turkey muscle meat is slightly higher in cholesterol content. That's why turkey and red meat luncheon meats are similar in the amount of cholesterol they contain.)
To avoid an excessive fat intake from these products, Tribole offers some advice to fat-conscious consumers. She encourages consumers to read labels carefully and "ignore the stuff that says fat-free. " Look instead, she said, for labels that display the grams of fat the product contains. And check to see what part of the animal the item is made from.
"When a label says 85% fat-free, it is referring to the weight of fat in a food, not the calories," Tribole cautioned. To visualize this, she suggested that consumers keep in mind that fat is light and floats on water, although it still has twice the calories.
In general, she said, those looking for an overall diet that keeps with the 30% goal recommended by health organizations, limit grams of fat to 3 per every 100 calories eaten each day. That will be the equivalent of about 27% fat as calories range, which is good, she said.
"It's (eating turkey and turkey products) a step in the right direction . . . but it's not an end-all. Sausages still have fat, so watch portions."
One way to safeguard against abuse is to use products cut from turkey breast meat, such as steaks, slices and tenderloins, whole breasts and breast portions, hickory-or honey-smoked turkey breast lunch meats and oven-roasted turkey breast.
Other items such as turkey ham, pastrami or frankfurters and other sausages are minimally fat foods compared with their pork and beef counterparts, but they do contain some fat. Again, portion control and balance are important, Tribole said.
A 3 1/2-ounce serving of turkey pastrami, for example, offers about 196 calories and 7 grams of fat, whereas the same amount of red meat pastrami has 354 calories and 30 grams of fat. Turkey salami, bologna and frankfurters provide about half as much fat and half as many calories as the red meat products, so feature them sparingly in recipes ranging from salads and sandwiches to main dish favorites.