Of the roughly 46 million turkeys that Americans will consume this Thanksgiving, an estimated 85 percent will be purchased as blocks of solid ice. But as ubiquitous as frozen turkeys may be, their origin story isn’t one that’s particularly well known. In the middle of the 20th century, these birds made their way to grocery-store shelves only after a scientific study revolutionized the practice of turkey farming in the U.S.—and, in the process, laid the groundwork for one of the most important breakthroughs connecting diet and heart disease.
Until the 1940s, turkeys were only sold freshly slaughtered, creating a logistical nightmare for suppliers around the end of November and a feast-or-famine seasonality to sales. But during World War II, in an attempt to bring a taste of home to soldiers stationed around the globe, the military froze and shipped turkeys to camps in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. It was a nice idea, but by the time the fowls were served to men in mess halls, they’d developed a fishy flavor.
To figure out how to make the birds more palatable, the army turned to Fred Kummerow, a young Kansas State University biochemist with an interest in nutrition. Kummerow had done his Ph.D. thesis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the role of linoleic acid in averting blood clotting, and had later conducted research at Clemson University on pellagra. The disease, then widespread in the South, can cause swollen tongues, rashes, erratic behavior, and, ultimately death. Kummerow’s team helped to identify lack of niacin (vitamin B3) as the cause, and eradicated it by convincing grits manufacturers to fortify their product.