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Science behind the turkey dinner

(Photo by: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Did you know there is a science to cooking and digesting a turkey? This science begins with genetically modified turkeys and ends with the chemical reactions that happen in your body after Thanksgiving dinner. (Photo by: Bob Fila/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Not everyone knows that there is a science behind one of the biggest holidays in the U.S.

When it comes to the choices between white meat and dark meat, most people prefer white meat. In response to this preference, scientists have genetically engineered turkeys to have bigger breasts in order to meet the high demand.

The bigger breast on the turkeys makes it difficult for them to walk and mate, therefore, females are artificially inseminated to keep up with the mass production of turkeys for the holidays.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 242 million turkeys were raised for the 2014 Thanksgiving holiday, which is down 5 percent from the number of turkeys raised in 2012.

Minnesota is considered to be the top in turkey production at 45 million turkeys raised. This number is closely followed by North Carolina at 35 million and Arkansas at 29 million.

There is also a science behind creating a succulent turkey for your holiday dinner.

Brining a turkey is a popular way cooks prepare their turkey prior to the actual roasting. A brine is made with salt and different spices. Brining works through osmosis. When the turkey is submerged in a brine, the salt in the brine allows the protein to retain more moisture.

Once the salt gets into the muscle fibers, which are made up of protein molecules, these molecules begin to loosen up. The muscle fibers begin to swell and pull the water from the brine back into the bird. The water molecules then begin to bond to the broken down protein molecules, which makes the bird juicier.

It’s a popular belief that eating turkey makes you sleepy. Turkey, like all poultry, is a good source of tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is responsible for helping build protein.

Tryptophan is used by the body to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter. One of the functions of serotonin in non-humans is to produce a deep sleep called slow-wave sleep. According to scientists and popular websites such as WebMD and, it’s not the turkey that is to blame for this onset of post-holiday dinner drowsiness.

Some researchers believe that you’re sleepy because the blood flow is redirected to your gastrointestinal tract, but one study debunked that idea.

Researchers found that there is a group of brain cells sensitive to glucose called orexin neurons, found in the hypothalamus, that produce the protein orexin, which regulates how awake you are. The levels of glucose tend to increase after a big meal.

However, this isn’t the only reason we may feel sleepy after a large dinner.

When we eat more, beta cells in the pancreas signal to secrete higher amounts of insulin. Insulin increases the body’s amount of serotonin and melatonin,which are responsible for drowsiness.

Although there is more to Thanksgiving than a turkey, science has a hand in helping make it the best turkey dinner it can possibly be. The next step would be genetically modifying family members to be less frustrating, but even then, science has its limits.



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