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Source: Marcus Quigmire, via Wikimedia Commons.

As we gather with family and friends for a traditional Thanksgiving meal this year, it's worth considering where all of that spectacular food comes from. Of course, it's probably something worth considering year round, but if we must pick just one day for such questions, Thanksgiving is a good one.

So in an attempt to lift the veil on what's behind our annual feast, here are three things you probably didn't know about your Thanksgiving meal.

1. A "natural" turkey isn't quite what you think
There are lots of buzzwords attached to food these days, and it can be difficult to decipher what they mean. When you read "natural," you could be forgiven for thinking that your turkey was raised in a way that mimics how turkeys naturally grow in the wild.

But it doesn't quite work that way. Instead, "natural" means that your turkey has no artificial ingredients. The label doesn't, however, speak to how the turkey was raised. It could have been given antibiotics regularly, fed an unnatural diet of animal by-products, and kept in cramped quarters. 

If you're really after a bird that was raised "naturally," your best bet is to buy a USDA-certified organic one. In addition to being 100% turkey, the label guarantees that that your meal came from a bird free of antibiotics, allowed to range freely in an open pasture, and given a vegetarian diet devoid of herbicides, pesticides, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 

2. Speaking of GMOs, there's probably a lot of them in your meal
Genetically modified organisms were made available for public consumption just 20 years ago. Since then, they have become the dominant form of farming cash crops.

GMOs have come under intense scrutiny lately from opponents who claim the long-term health consequences have yet to be determined and that the practice causes untold damage to the environment.

As it stands now, the following plants are predominantly forms of GMOs.


% of Total 2011 U.S. Harvest From GMOs

Sugar Beets










Source: Non-GMO Project. 

Unless they are marked as USDA-certified organic, your Thanksgiving turkey and ham likely fed on corn and soy GM feed while it was fattening up. The butter in your mashed potatoes and casserole dishes probably came from cows fed GMOs. Even things cooked in vegetable or canola oil were likely exposed to GMOs. And though cranberries, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes are most assuredly not GMOs, if any non-cane-sugar sweeteners were added (via high fructose corn syrup or sugar beets), GMOs are probably there.

No scientific studies have been able to conclusively determine that GMOs are nutritionally different than conventionally grown foods, but should this be something you want to avoid, read all of your labels extra carefully.

3. Lower standards are what's keeping the cost of your Thanksgiving meal low
Without a doubt, we'd all like to see the price for putting a great Thanksgiving meal on the table to remain reasonable. But one of the ways major corporations are able to offer such great deals is by raising turkeys in conditions that are less than desirable -- with constant use of antibiotics, cramped quarters, and lots of animal excrement.

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Turkeys at a North Carolina farm owned by Butterball. Source: Mercy for Animals, via Wikimedia Commons.

But that practice may now be backfiring. Butterball, America's largest producer of Thanksgiving turkeys, reported that this year there would only be half as many turkeys available above 16 pounds. The reason is that the birds have been mysteriously unable to gain as much weight as they have in the past. 

The company hasn't released many details concerning the development. But that hasn't stopped some who oppose the industry from drawing knee-jerk conclusions -- like the fact that antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria are now making their way into turkey farms.

Don't let it ruin your day
Though much of this information might sound grim, don't let it stop you from enjoying your Thanksgiving Day with friends and family. In the end, you have a lot of choice in how you celebrate the holiday.

And should you choose to spend the extra cash to help make the meal meet your standards, industry experts have one foolproof way of keeping costs (and waste) down: Celebrate with more people. Food safety concerns or not, it's hard to argue with a suggestion like that.

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