Thanksgiving Table Talk

Thanksgiving Table Talk

By Tarynne Mingione, RD
Registered Dietitian

During this time of year the talk at the dinner table is so entertaining that we remain seated for hours, dishing up more extraordinary conversations and your third “taste” of pie as the wine evaporates. But which holiday foods have the most nutritional benefits? I’ll highlight some of your favorite holiday foods so you have something to bring to the table this Thursday.

History of Thanksgiving 1.0

The important stuff was taught in elementary school, but in case your memory needs a boost: the pilgrims had a bit of a rocky start (battling crop failure and disease) following their arrival to Plymouth in December 1620. With help from Native Americans, the crop the following year was one to be celebrated. The three day celebration featured boiled pumpkins, berries, dried fruits, seafood (fish, lobster, clam), corn and venison. Fast forward 2.5 centuries. Today, you can thank the gentleman on the US penny for proclaiming Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1863 (for those of you only familiar with plastic, that would be Abraham Lincoln).

Enough with the history lesson, let’s get to the next course on tastier stuff!

Traditional Foods Today

Sweet Potato (with marshmallows) Casserole

Did the Pilgrims have a successful crop of jet-puffed marshmallows in 1621? Nice try. How did these little sugar clouds end up dancing with our sweet potatoes today? I have no idea. Hate to break the news, but the marshmallow package lies - these little bullets contain no derivative of the marshmallow plant. Plant? Yes – it does exist, and was first used in confections in France in the early 19th century by sweetening and then whipping the sap of the root. It was labor intensive, so manufactures figured out a way to make it easy – adding gelatin and corn starch (solution to everyone’s problem – right?). Nutritional value? Zero.

Let’s instead focus on the antioxidant packed potatoes tucked beneath this sugary fluff. But did you know: sweet potatoes aren’t actually potatoes! They are members of the morning glory family. There are over 400 varieties of sweet potatoes – big picture is that they contain carotenes (vitamin A), vitamin C, manganese, copper, fiber, vitamin B6, potassium and iron. Vitamin A is fat soluble, so eating it with a little healthy fat (as in organic olive oil) helps absorption. So go ahead and enjoy this dish that has snuck into the traditional lineup, just dig deep for the nutrient rich stuff on the bottom!

Turkey

Post-turkey naptime! Pardon the honesty, but it might be all the wine, plummeting blood sugar levels, fatty foods, and the 3rd serving you knew you shouldn’t go for, but yes, there is a little (as in close-to-no) chip of chemistry behind this claim. Turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan – the precursor for serotonin. Serotonin induces sleep. Being the foodie detective that I am, using a reputable software program I found the following:

Item (Tryptophan (g) per 1oz):

Turkey (0.10)

Chicken (0.10)

Halibut (0.07)

Pork (0.11)

Beef (0.04)

What’s my point? That turkey isn’t impressively higher (in fact it has the same or lower amounts) in tryptophan than other proteins you normally enjoy. Ignorance is bliss-so go ahead and indulge, just know it’s not the turkey’s fault for your lowering eyelids.

I feel bad I squashed the nap myth (ok, the marshmallow news too), so here is a replacement fun fact – Benjamin Franklin once criticized the eagle, which was selected as our national bird. He said it was “a bird of bad  moral character”, and that the turkey was “a much more respectable bird",  "a true original native of America.”

Cranberries

Let me introduce one of the native fruits of America (the only others are blueberry and Concord grape) that was enjoyed at the first feast. First identified by varying names from different tribes (ibimi, atoqua) suggesting something like bitter berry, the name today came from German and Dutch settlers who called it the “crane berry” (the flower resembled the head and bill of a crane). Today it’s enjoyed straight out of the can (first offered on the shelves in 1912) or from a simple recipe featuring sugar and cranberries (first printed recipe for sauce was 1796). Cranberries are wet-harvested - meaning bogs are flooded with water, the cranberries float to the surface, and then are collected (probably by those lovable men on the Ocean Spray commercial).

Do cranberries prevent UTIs? (Excuse me, this isn’t exactly table talk, but essential when mentioning the benefits of cranberries.) These red beads of joy contain proanthocyanidins (PCAs-these are good) that inhibit bacterial adhesion in the urinary tract epithelium. No adhesion of bacteria = no chance for infection. This is old news. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1994 showed that 10fl oz juice daily reduced women’s chances for UTI by 42%. Cranberries also assist in preventing kidney stone formation by way of acidifying the urine and making it hard for calcium and phosphorus ions to precipitate (form stones). Cranberries are also high in vitamin C and fiber. They can be refrigerated for months, stored in the freezer for years (trust me on this one; I’m well stocked in the event of a national cranberry shortage). So drink up! Or, eat up - try this recipe for cranberry sauce.

How did we transform a celebration of good harvest into a day where we test our stomach capacity, watch football, and devour retail advertisements to plan our 4am black Friday adventure? I’m not concerned about finding the answer – but I am pleased to devote a day (or three) to celebrating the good company and great food in my life, and give thanks. 

Enjoy this holiday - Happy Thanksgiving!

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