Is Turkey Sausage Actually Healthy?

A high-protein breakfast is associated with numerous health benefits. Turkey sausage is regarded as healthier than pork sausage, but just how nutritious is it?

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

You've certainly heard the phrase before, and it's not without merit. Studies have found that making breakfast your largest meal of the day can be a tremendous boon to your overall health, and skipping breakfast has been linked to a decrease in focus, memory and mood. But it's not just about eating breakfast—it's about eating a breakfast of the right foods. When it comes to breakfast meat, turkey sausage has long been viewed as a healthy alternative to pork sausage. But what exactly is the difference between the two, both in terms of substance and nutrition? Can turkey sausage really fit into a balanced diet? STACK investigates.

Let's start by seeing the difference between pork sausage and turkey sausage. In terms of ingredients, the two are quite similar—turkey sausage is simply made using ground turkey as opposed to ground pork. The rest of the ingredients are mostly spices and possibly some preservatives depending on the brand. Johnsonville is one of America's leading purveyors of breakfast sausage. Let's see how their pork sausage and turkey sausage compare in terms of nutrition.

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One serving (2 links) of Johnsonville Original Recipe Fully Cooked Breakfast Sausage contains 150 calories, 13 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, 30mg of cholesterol, 390mg of sodium, 0 grams fiber, 0 grams sugar and 7 grams of protein. A serving of the turkey sausage equivalent contains 70 fewer calories, 8.5 fewer grams of fat and 3.5 fewer grams of saturated fat. It contains roughly the same amount of sodium, cholesterol and protein. So there's certainly a marked nutritional difference between pork sausage and turkey sausage, and that difference isn't relegated just to the Johnsonville brand. For example, Applegate, a company which specializes in natural and organic meats, has a similar discrepancy between their turkey and pork sausage. Turkey sausage is typically going to represent a serious nutritional upgrade over pork sausage. However, just because one product is better than another doesn't necessarily mean its healthy.

Perhaps the biggest asset of turkey sausage is its high protein content. A serving of Applegate Peppered Turkey Breakfast Sausage, for example, contains 11 grams of protein. Not only does high-quality protein provide the amino acids muscles need to repair and rebuild (allowing you to get stronger over time), but it can help you stay fuller for longer throughout the day. The body can also use protein as a source of energy. The benefits of consuming a high-protein breakfast are immense.

A 2015 study published in the journal Obesity found that a high-protein breakfast (defined as containing 35 grams of protein) aided adolescents in weight loss more than a normal-protein breakfast (defined as containing 13 grams of protein). The high-protein breakfast led to the prevention of fat mass gains, reductions in daily food intake and reductions in daily hunger. A 2014 study presented at the American Society for Nutrition's Experimental Biology conference compared common breakfasts with varying amounts of protein. The options included a commercially prepared turkey sausage and egg bowl, cereal and milk, and pancakes with syrup. All meals were similar in calories, fat and fiber. Researchers found that the turkey sausage and egg bowl breakfasts (which contained the most protein of any option) led participants to feel less hungry and consume less calories at lunch. The higher protein breakfasts also stabilized blood glucose levels better than the lower-protein meals. Turkey sausage is a convenient way to add protein to your morning meal, which is certainly a valuable attribute.

That turkey sausage is significantly lower in saturated fat than most breakfast meats is also an advantage. Eating too much saturated fat drastically increases your risk of high cholesterol, which in turn can have a negative impact on blood flow and oxygen transportation throughout the body. The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 6% of your daily calories come from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calories-a-day diet, that translates to a limit of 13 grams of saturated fat each day. Since most turkey sausages contain one or two grams of saturated fat per serving, including them in your daily diet is manageable. The lower fat content of turkey sausage is also a big plus for athletes who have morning workouts or practices, since high-fat foods (like pork sausage) sit in the stomach longer, take several hours to digest and leave you feeling bloated and sluggish.

Perhaps the biggest concern with turkey sausage is the relatively high sodium content. No matter what brand you pick, you're going to be looking at roughly 300-500mg of sodium per serving. Studies show 9 in 10 Americans consume too much sodium. The recommended daily level of sodium intake is 1,500mg, yet the average American consumes more than twice that amount. Over-consuming sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke and a wide range of other issues. Health officials estimate that if Americans lowered their daily sodium intake to the recommended range, it would prevent up to 92,000 deaths annually. Although athletes who work out at a high intensity for several hours a day can get away with eating more, people who work out only moderately (for an hour or less per day) typically don't sweat enough to warrant a high-sodium diet.

You also have to be careful with the ingredients when it comes to turkey sausage. If you're looking to stay away from preservatives, you're better off going with a product like the Applegate Peppered Turkey Breakfast Sausage (which contains just three ingredients aside from turkey, water and spices) than a product like Johnsonville Turkey Fully Cooked Breakfast Sausage (which contains 11 ingredients aside from turkey, water and spices). You should also need be weary of flavored options, as words like "Maple" often mean more added sugar or sweeteners.

Is turkey sausage healthy? Compared to pork sausage, absolutely. It's significantly lower in calories and saturated fat while retaining that precious protein content. But in a void, it's a bit harder to say. Turkey sausage can conveniently add protein to your breakfast without packing in a ton of additional calories, and the benefits of a high-protein breakfast can be immense. However, if you're someone who struggles to control your sodium intake, it may be more difficult to make turkey sausage a part of your daily diet. It really comes down to what else you're eating and what you're willing to sacrifice. If you do go for turkey sausage, remember to check out the ingredients list. As always, the smaller, the better.

Photo Credit: kirin_photo/iStock, rjlerich/iStock

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Topics: PROTEIN | HEALTHY BREAKFAST | NUTRITION | PERFORMANCE NUTRITION | SODIUM | HEALTHY EATING | BREAKFAST | SAUSAGE | SATURATED FAT | EATING HEALTHY | NUTRITION TIPS | NUTRITION ADVICE