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What’s in My Thanksgiving Food? The Good, the Bad and the Yummy

Football, family and — most important — feasting. It is almost Thanksgiving! In the United States, we have transformed quite a bit as a population since the original 1621 harvest meal; however, we seem to be moving back to our roots of consuming all-natural and healthier foods. Over the years, people have gained an increasing interest in obtaining nutrition knowledge. Fear of foodborne pathogens has also increased as outbreaks occur such as that of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli in chain restaurants like Chipotle5 and multi-state outbreaks of Listeriosis in popular foods like Blue Bell Ice Cream.6 Concerns can be heightened about health and nutrition during the holiday season, as cooks are tasked with creating deliciously satisfying, impressively natural and sometimes completely organic dishes. Anything vegan, that is full of antioxidants or gluten free is becoming a trend and processed foods have fallen out of favor. So, what is in some of these foods we consume on Thanksgiving? Can they be chocked full of antioxidants? Could tiny bacteria be swimming around looking for a new host to infect? The following is a brief overview of some of the food and beverage items often consumed on this grand feast day, and their potential positive or negative effects.

Turkey and Tryptophan, Red Wine and Trans-Resveratrol

When people hear the word “tryptophan” they tend to associate it with turkey and lethargy. I even tend to joke about this, knowing that it is rather the high amount of fats and carbohydrates being metabolized that lead to that post-feast coma. Unbeknownst to me, until recently researching the naturally occurring chemical, I learned that turkey has less tryptophan than soybeans.13 You never really hear about people getting sleepy from eating soybeans, right? Tryptophan is actually an essential amino acid (meaning your body cannot produce it) found in many foods including meats, dairy, fruits and nuts. It is the chemical precursor of peripherally and centrally produced serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a significant role in the regulation of mood and cognition and is found in the central nervous system, blood platelets of humans and is also (and primarily) distributed in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.10 In the GI tract, tryptophan plays a role in something called the “brain-gut-microbiome axis”. Adequate levels of the amino acid are essential for proper functioning of the gut.8,10 In those people afflicted with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), decreased tryptophan intake — which ultimately causes decreased serotonin production — has been linked to GI disturbances, including constipation. Conversely, and also unfortunately, those with excessive levels of serotonin production were shown to get diarrhea, one of the many side effects of “serotonin syndrome”. Serotonin syndrome, if it occurs, is generally associated with excessive supplement use.11,14 Appropriately increased use of tryptophan supplement, specifically administered as L-tryptophan, has been linked to improvement of sleep patterns, elevated mood during premenstrual dysphoric disorder and improvement of mood in those suffering from depression and anxiety.14 So, the assumption that tryptophan causes you to be sleepy is not entirely wrong, rather there is more of a link between establishing proper sleep-wake cycles and the amino acid. As can be seen, improper use of L-tryptophan supplements may bring about some undesired side effects, so it would seem it is best to obtain the amino acid from a well-balanced diet (unless instructed otherwise by a physician).14,15 The moral of this story? You can always have too much or too little of a good thing, so be wary of how much turkey you load up on, but enjoy yourself in the process!

Speaking of something that improves mood, did you know that the red wine you’re looking forward to pouring for yourself can actually make you look younger? Well, not exactly, but it does contain trans-Resveratrol (a naturally occurring polyphenolic compound) that is thought to be linked to reduced risk of coronary heart disease, pulmonary diseases, and cancers.7,16 Pinot Noir varieties have been shown to have the highest levels of this chemo-protective property.12,16 It has also recently been suggested that low doses of resveratrol as a dietary supplement could improve systemic and cerebral circulation in those with type 2 diabetes mellitus which could improve cognitive function.17 Please keep in mind, when you reach for that shiny bottle, that all of these great things are obtained from drinking a 1- to 5-ounce glass of wine on average per day,1 not the entire bottle (as fun as that may be). And don’t worry if you’re not a drinker, that cranberry sauce has the phytochemical as well. In addition to similar benefits offered with drinking red wine, cranberries have also been linked to prevention of Helicobacter pylori infection, which is a major cause of peptic ulcer formation and gastric cancer.9 This year I personally will be settling down with some variety of cheaper Pinot Noir with a side of homemade cranberry sauce!

Foodborne Pathogens

Lastly, and certainly the least fun on this list, let’s talk about foodborne pathogens. Many people already know about the potentially hazardous toxins present in potluck food, so I did not want to delve too deeply into this subject, but will make mention as it is an important holiday component. Foods can get contaminated at many points along the food production chain3; however, during the holidays, as we prepare food and share with others, it’s important to make sure that we are not ill while preparing food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests practicing food safety by washing your hands before preparing food, cooking food thoroughly to a safe minimum internal temperature, keeping hot food hot and cold food cold, not eating raw cookie dough or cake batter (bummer), keeping foods separated, and safely thawing the turkey (especially before throwing it into a deep fryer to avoid a fireworks show).2 Those most at risk for foodborne illness are pregnant women, older adults, young children and those with weakened immune systems2,3. If you cannot avoid eating that cookie dough, try an edible version that can now be found in your local grocery store. This way you can get your fix and avoid getting that dose of E. coli O157:H7 known to be potentially present in raw, refrigerated prepackaged cookie dough.4

There you have it! I could spend much more time discussing some other healthy components in your Thanksgiving meal (e.g. digestive enzymes in certain fruits, niacin-rich potato skins, pumpkins full of beta-carotene, fiber and our friend tryptophan). Time to do your own research. What do you already know or can learn about the composition of the foods you will serve and be eating this year? Enjoy!


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2017) Alcohol and Public Health: Frequently Asked Questions. Site last visited on October 30, 2017

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2016) CDC Features: Food Safety Tips for the Holidays. Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2017) Food Safety: How Food Gets Contaminated – The Food Production Chain. Site last visited October 30, 2017

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2009) E. coli (Escherichia coli): Multistate Oubreak of E. coli O157:H7 Infections Linked to Eating Raw, Refrigerated Prepackaged Cookie Dough (Final Update). Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2016) E. coli (Escherichia coli): Multistate Outbreaks of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli 026 Infections Linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill Restaurants (Final Update). Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2015) Listeria (Listeriosis): Multistage Outbreak of Listeriosis Linked to Blue Bell Creameries Products (Final Update). Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  7. Harikumar, K.B., Aggarwal, B.B. (2008) Resveratrol: a multitargeted agent for age-associated chronic diseases. Cell Cycle; 7(8): 1020-1035. Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  8. Jenkin, Trisha A. et al (2016) Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients 8(1):56. Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  9. Neto, Catherine C. (2007) Cranberry and Its Phytochemicals: A Review of In Vitro Anticancer Studies. The Journal of Nutrition 137(1): 1865-1935.

  10. O’Mahony, S.M. et al. (2015) Serotonin, tryptophan metabolism and the brain-gut- microbiome axis. Behavioural Brain Research 277: 32-48. Site last visited October 31, 2017.

  11. Spiller, R. (2008) Serotonin and GI clinical disorders. Neuropharmacology 55(6):1072- 1080. Site last visited October 31, 2017.

  12. Stervbo, Ulrik, Vang, Ole, Bonnesen, Christine (2007). A review of the content of the putative chemopreventive phytoalexin resveratrol in red wine. Food Chemistry 101 (2): 449-457. Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  13. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2017) Nutrient Lists, Tryptophan. Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  14. Web MD, LLC. (2017) Find a Vitamin of Supplement, L-Tryptophan. Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  15. WebMD, LLC. (2017) What is Serotonin Syndrome? Site last visited October 30, 2017.

  16. Williams, Lonnie D., Burdock, George A. et al. (2009) Safety studies conducted on high- purity trans-resveratrol in experimental animals. Food and Chemical Toxicology 47:170–2182.

  17. Wong, R.H.X et al. (2016) Low dose resveratrol improves cerebrovascular function in type 2 diabetes mellitus. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases 26 (5): 393-399.

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