This post is part of the Science Today feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.
When you sit down to your Thanksgiving feast and reflect on the bounty on your table, you might want to say a quiet “thank you” to the agricultural researchers who have made your holiday favorites so plentiful and so good for you, too.
Let’s start with the Thanksgiving star: the turkey. This Native American bird was rapidly slipping in popularity in the 1930s because smaller family size and smaller iceboxes meant there were too many unwieldy leftovers from the big birds.
So scientists at what is now the Agricultural Research Center of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, MD developed a new turkey called the Beltsville Small White, which averaged just 8-10 pounds, yielded more breast meat, and had white feathers, which meant that any quills not totally removed during processing didn’t detract from the bird’s appearance.
The Beltsville Small White was a big hit, and today virtually every commercial turkey owes a bit of its lineage to that beautiful bird.
Another mainstay of the Thanksgiving table is cranberries, and ARS scientists have made key contributions there, too. Although cranberries were part of the first Thanksgiving feast nearly 400 years ago, ARS scientists are working to improve this historic favorite by breeding hybrid cranberries whose Alaskan parentage could make the berries even better for you by providing higher absorbable amounts of natural substances called antioxidants that help protect our cells, repel disease and promote good health.
If the sweet potato casserole is calling your name, dig in, because sweet potatoes are packed not only with carotenoids, vitamin C, potassium and fiber, but also—as revealed by ARS analysis—very high levels of protective phenolic compounds called caffeoylquinic acids, known for their antioxidant activity.
ARS scientists also have played a key role in finding ways to protect the sweet potato, the world’s fifth-most-produced food crop, against some of its worst natural enemies, including the sweet potato weevil, by identifying irradiation as a way to prevent the weevils from hitching a ride on sweet potato shipments.
Of course, what would Thanksgiving be without pumpkin pie—and thanks to ARS studies, you can eat that with a clear conscience, too. ARS scientists developed a simple, fast and environmentally friendly way to measure beta-carotene and other healthful carotenoids in pumpkin, and showed that pumpkin probably has more beta-carotene than any other food on your Thanksgiving table. Our bodies can convert this particular carotenoid into vitamin A, a nutrient essential for good eyesight. The ARS scientists have also identified native bees that are key pollinators of pumpkin plants to ensure we have a plentiful supply of this holiday favorite.
It just goes to show there’s a lot of science behind our holiday traditions!