Whether you're cooking at home or visiting friends or family for Thanksgiving, the turkey may seem to be the least of your worries when trying to avoid food allergens. Depending on your allergies, though, that can be a mistake. Some birds come preprocessed with common allergens. Here's how to buy a safer turkey.
Know Your Turkey Types
Basted or self-basting turkeys, which include most well-known commercial turkey brands, are injected with some sort of solution to make them tender. These solutions may include common allergens. Other types of turkeys include natural turkeys, which must by law be "minimally processed" -- that is, not fundamentally different than a turkey in its raw form. Check labels, but natural turkeys should contain nothing but turkey and, perhaps, water. Organic, free-range, ready-to-eat, and kosher, however, do not have set and consistent meanings as far as additional allergens are concerned. Check labels before you buy.
Which Turkeys are the Safest for People with Food Allergies?
Because they cannot include additives, natural turkeys are the safest bet for families with food allergies or for people who are entertaining guests with allergies. Always double-check labels, however. Note that organic, free-range, or hormone-free turkeys are not necessarily "natural" (as defined by the USDA) and may legally contain additives.
Which Allergens are Most Likely To Be Found in Turkeys?
Dairy, soy, wheat, and corn are the allergens that are most commonly found in commercial turkeys. These are usually in the form of butter, "vegetable protein," or similar additives. Look for additives after the text "Injected with approximately ___% of a solution of ___," which will appear somewhere on the label.
What If I Can't Find Ingredients on the Label?
If you can't find ingredients on the labels, look for the phrase "minimally processed." If you find that phrase, the turkey likely was not fundamentally altered from its raw state -- meaning that no ingredients have been added. (That's normally the reason you won't be able to find ingredients on the label.) For utmost peace of mind, though, you might call the customer service number listed on the package to confirm that.
Are Kosher Turkeys Safe for People with Food Allergies?
Kosher turkeys are popular even among people who don't keep kosher because they've won high-profile taste tests in national magazines and because, unlike natural turkeys, they don't need to be brined (they're presalted). The term "kosher" simply refers to the Rabbinical supervision of the special process under which the birds are raised and slaughtered. Some kosher products do contain common allergens. However, several nationally available brands of whole kosher turkeys, including Empire and Rubashkin's Aaron's, are indeed "minimally processed."
If the Only Option Available in My Area is Self-Basting Turkey, What Do I Do?
If you're not dealing with multiple food allergies, check labels on multiple national brands. While self-basting turkeys do tend to use allergenic additives, they don't all use the same ones. You may find a safe choice. Another option, which may work for small groups or if you want to bring your own turkey to a gathering where you're not sure the food will be safe, is to cook a natural turkey breast or turkey thighs. Not as festive as a whole roast bird, granted, but safe. Willing to go all out? You can spring for a mail-order natural "heritage" bird, but be prepared to spend upwards of $75.