How Do These 10 Thanksgiving Staples Compare on Nutritional Value?

A full thanksgiving plate

Kimberly Vardeman / Flickr 

Thanksgiving is full of traditions. From the parades to the afternoon football games to the dishes, many of us celebrate Thanksgiving much the same way we did as kids.

It’s also a day when we throw calorie and fat concerns to the wind. We eat mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and a roll — all in the same sitting and nobody frets about the carbs. Then we top it off with pumpkin pie and cookies. No wonder everyone loves Thanksgiving dinner!

But what if you could make your menu more nutritionally sound without your guests realizing it? Using a unique nutritional scoring system from NuVal — a public-private partnership between a hospital and food industry representatives — we’ve compared common Thanksgiving foods. A higher score means higher nutritional content. Points are awarded for nutrients like protein, vitamins, and fiber while points are subtracted for trans fats, sodium, and sugar. Is canned jellied cranberry sauce or canned whole berry cranberry sauce the better choice? Read on to find out.

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brapps/Flickr and peripathetic/Flickr.

Skinless turkey breast vs. turkey breast with the skin on: OK, this one's a no-brainer. Everyone knows that a lot of fat is hidden in poultry skin, which is why skinless chicken is such a staple.

Skinless turkey breast scores a 48 on the NuVal scale. (And on the NuVal scoreboard, higher is better.) It loses 17 points when you keep the skin on — for a tally of 31 points — so leaving the skin behind is the healthier option.

But here's a detail that might surprise you: Turkey breast is one of the highest scoring meats on the NuVal scale. Skinless turkey breast scores 9 points higher than skinless chicken breast, which earns 39 points. Pork tenderloin, one of the leaner pork cuts, scores 35 points. So as you serve up your Thanksgiving bird, you can be pleased that you — and most of America — are serving your guests one of the more nutritious fresh meats available.

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Stove Top Turkey Stuffing vs. Stove Top Chicken Stuffing with Whole Wheat: Stuffing is a key player in the Thanksgiving tradition. If you don’t make your own, chances are you use a stuffing mix like Stove Top. Is one kind of Stove Top nutritionally better than another?

According to NuVal, yes. Stove Top Chicken Stuffing with Whole Wheat has a NuVal score of 14, while Stove Top Turkey Stuffing earns a score of 5. What’s the difference? The whole wheat flour adds fiber to the chicken stuffing. The chicken stuffing has 3 grams of fiber per serving compared with less than 1 gram of fiber per serving in the turkey stuffing. Both stuffings are similar in fat, calories and sodium, but the chicken stuffing contains sugar while the turkey stuffing has high-fructose corn syrup.

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Mac and cheese

Back to Nature 100% Whole Wheat Macaroni & White Cheddar vs. Kraft Original Macaroni & Cheese: For many people, the macaroni and cheese served on Thanksgiving comes from a recipe that’s been passed down through the generations. If you’re looking for a boxed mac and cheese — perhaps for the toddler who doesn’t appreciate your oyster stuffing (yet) — some are better than others.

Back to Nature’s 100% Whole Wheat Macaroni & White Cheddar has a NuVal score of 24 while the famous blue box of Kraft Original Macaroni & Cheese earns a NuVal score of 3. The difference lies in the whole wheat. Back to Nature has a whopping 7 grams of fiber per serving. The Kraft brand offers only 1 gram per serving. Back to Nature is lower in calories and fat per serving (230 calories and 2 grams of fat) compared to Kraft (260 calories and 3.5 grams of fat). And don’t forget the artificial dyes that give Kraft that orange glow. Back to Nature doesn’t have any artificial dyes.

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Cranberry sauce

Ocean Spray Jellied Cranberry Sauce vs. Ocean Spray Whole Berry Cranberry Sauce: We know — family feuds can erupt over cranberry sauce. But on the off-chance cranberry sauce isn't contentious at your house, buy a couple of cans of the whole berry sauce this Thanksgiving.

NuVal gives Ocean Spray Whole Berry Cranberry Sauce a 3, while smoother Jellied Cranberry Sauce receives a 1.

Both have the same ingredients — cranberries, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup and water. The difference comes from the whole berries, which add a little fiber. The whole berry sauce has 1 gram of fiber per serving; the jellied variety has less than 1 gram. Both cranberry sauces have the same amount of calories, fat and sodium per serving.

The nutritional difference certainly isn’t enough to start a family war, but the whole berry is slightly better nutritionally than the jellied version.

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Keebler Townhouse Bistro Multigrain Crackers vs. Ryvita Rye & Oat Bran Whole Grain Rye Crispbread: You probably can't magically make your mother-in-law’s famous cheese ball any healthier, but what about the crackers that accompany the cheesy wonder? Using a multigrain cracker can help increase the nutritional factor, but you should know that not all multigrain crackers are created equal.

Ryvita Rye & Oat Bran Whole Grain Rye Crispbread crackers have a high NuVal score of 87. Keebler Townhouse Bistro Multigrain Crackers earned a score of 2. The ingredients make all the difference. Ryvita’s crackers have three ingredients: whole grain rye flour, oat bran and salt. Keebler's have lots of ingredients, starting with enriched flour (not a whole grain) and including partially hydrogenated oil, sugar and corn syrup.

One 10-gram serving of Ryvita has 35 calories, 0 grams of fat, 20 grams of sodium, and 2 grams of fiber. One 16-gram serving of Keebler has 80 calories, 3 grams of fat, 130 grams of sodium and less than 1 gram of fiber. Which cracker would you rather feed your family?

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Green beans

Green Giant Valley Fresh Steamers Cut Green Beans vs. Green Giant Green Bean Casserole: Green bean casserole may be a tradition at Thanksgiving, but serving plain green beans makes a lot more nutritional sense. With a perfect NuVal score of 100, Green Giant Cut Green Beans in a steamable bag are nutritious vegetables with nothing else added. Green Giant Green Bean Casserole, on the other hand, scores a 23 — a sad score for a vegetable sure to be on many Thanksgiving tables.

Take a look at these nutrition facts. Per serving, the cut green beans have 30 calories, no sodium and no fat. Per serving, the green bean casserole has 100 calories, 450 milligrams of sodium and 8 grams of fat. The green bean casserole also has partially hydrogenated soy bean oil, added colors and artificial flavors.

So when you put the green beans on the table this Thanksgiving, skip the added fat, sodium and cholesterol. Make sure there are a lot more beans and a lot less casserole on the plates. A bonus — the plain green beans will be less expensive than the casserole.

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Mashed potatoes

JupiterImages (mashed potatoes).

Idahoan Original Mashed Potatoes vs. fresh mashed potatoes: It would be reasonable to assume that the potatoes that you peeled and cooked on the stovetop would earn a much higher NuVal score than instant mashed potatoes, but surprisingly, the scores aren’t too far apart.

Red potatoes, a common potato used to make mashed potatoes, receive a NuVal score of 93. Idahoan Original Mashed Potatoes score a 90. Why are the two so close nutritionally?

Idahoan Original Mashed Potatoes are nothing more than dehydrated potatoes with emulsifier (mono and diglycerides) and preservative (sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium bisulfite, citric acid, mixed tocopherols). While you aren’t going to find any of those emulsifiers or preservatives in fresh potatoes, they don’t seem to take much away from the nutrition of the potatoes, at least according to NuVal.

The fresh mashed potatoes are a bit higher in nutrition. Most people would agree they taste 100 percent better, too. However, if you opt for instant, Idahoan Original Mashed Potatoes are fairly nutritionally sound — just get the original, not the instant version with butter or cheese flavors.

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Birds Eye Frozen Garden Peas vs. Birds Eye Steamfresh Garlic Baby Peas & Mushrooms: Do peas usually grace your Thanksgiving table? How about peas and mushrooms? Adding mushrooms doesn’t seem like it would hurt the peas' nutritional value, but when you add mushrooms with seasoning and partially hydrogenated oil, it does.

Birds Eye Frozen Garden Peas have a NuVal score of 96 — the same as fresh peas. But when Birds Eye adds other ingredients to those peas as they do in the Steamfresh Garlic Baby Peas & Mushrooms, the score plummets to 47. No one is going to miss the mushrooms with the peas — especially if you’ve put them where they belong in the stuffing.

Frozen plain peas have 70 calories, 4 grams of fiber, 0 grams of sodium and 0 grams of fat per 2/3 cup serving. The frozen garden peas with various seasonings and partially hydrogenated soybean oil have 80 calories, 3 grams of fiber, 340 milligrams of sodium and 2 grams of fat per 3-ounce serving. Sticking with the plain peas makes nutritional sense.

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Sara Lee Classic Dinner Rolls vs. Martin's Potato Dinner Rolls: Ahh, the dinner rolls. During Thanksgiving, they are often a vehicle for butter or sopping up gravy. Do your guests really care what roll you serve as long as it's soft and chewy? Probably not, so why not opt for a roll that has more nutritional value?

Both Martin’s Potato Dinner Rolls and Sara Lee Classic Dinner Rolls are small, soft and perfect for piling on the butter or soaking up the gravy. Martin’s Potato Diner Rolls, however, have a NuVal score of 27, while Sara Lee Classic Dinner Rolls scored a 16 on the NuVal scale.

At 90 calories per serving, 1 gram of fat, 130 milligram of sodium and 2 grams of fiber, Martin’s Potato Dinner Rolls beat Sara Lee Classic Dinner Rolls in all categories. The Sara Lee rolls contain 110 calories per serving, 1.5 grams of fat, 190 grams of sodium and 1 gram of fiber.

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Jupiterimages (pumpkin).

Fresh pumpkin vs. Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin: Pumpkin pie is the definitive Thanksgiving dessert. Sure, there may be apple pies, cookies and brownies, but no one would blink if the latter were missing. The pumpkin pie, however, has a reserved spot on the dessert table.

The question is, which is better — fresh pumpkin that you roasted and pureed yourself or plain pumpkin with nothing added from the can? Low in fat, sodium and calories while high in fiber, plain canned pumpkin (different from pumpkin pie filling) and fresh pumpkin are close nutritionally. As far as NuVal is concerned, this one is a draw. Fresh pumpkin and Libby’s 100% Pure Pumpkin in the can score a 94.

If you’re looking for a shortcut, using canned pumpkin in your pumpkin pie (and pumpkin cookies, pumpkin soup and pumpkin bread), is a way to save time without shorting your family on nutrition.