These Holiday Foods Have More Sugar Than You Think

Get a handle on added sugar during the holidays with help from a nutrition expert.

We’re well aware that pecan and pumpkin pies are packed with sugar, but if you’ve ever needed a nap before dessert was served, it might not have been the tryptophan in turkey (or even the Pinot noir) to blame. It could have been a sneaky sugar crash.

Indeed, sugar lurks in more than just the obvious places like cake and candy. In fact, some seemingly healthy foods are packed with sugar. (And when it comes to sugar, less is usually more.) These sugary snacks often creep up on us during the holidays. To help offset our over-indulgence, we spoke with a nutrition expert who pointed out which foods we need to be aware of and how we can enjoy them anyway without the guilt.

Added Sugar Guidelines

“The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to 6 teaspoons (25 grams) for most women and children over the age of 2 years, and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for most men,” says Linda Van Horn, PhD, RD, chief of nutrition in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and American Heart Association expert.

“American adults and kids currently consume much more than that, which can cause overeating, weight gain, and inflammation—all things that increase risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cognitive problems, cancer, and more," says Van Horn. The holiday season tends to push people even further over this threshold.

The Most Sugary Holiday Foods


According to Van Horn, nearly half of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugary drinks. “During the holiday season, drinks like eggnog, hot chocolate, apple cider, flavored coffee drinks, and cocktails are sneaky sources of sugar because people often have these in addition to meals and snacks, so they don’t think of them as almost the same calories and sugar as a meal on their own,” she explains. “Just one of these drinks can be more than the recommended daily limit of sugar consumption.”

Side Dishes

Sweet side dishes are another part of the meal to keep an eye on. Vegetable and starchy sides like sweet potatoes and squash that are mixed or topped with sugar (ahem, including marshmallows, molasses, and maple syrup) can pack a scary amount of sugar. Same goes for cranberry sauce, Van Horn says. “And then there are the more obvious culprits we eat over the holidays, like baked goods, candy and desserts.”

How to Avoid Excess Sugar

Check nutrition labels

For starters, when grocery shopping, Van Horn recommends checking nutrition labels before you buy because there are many packaged foods that are sneaky sources of sugar. “Sugar goes by many aliases, like agave, corn sweetener, dextrose, juice concentrate, glucose, honey, maltose, molasses, sucrose, and anything with the words sugar or syrup,” she says.

Use smart ingredient swaps

When it comes to ingredient swaps, there are a lot of smart solutions for reducing sugar that won’t compromise the flavor of your foods. “For holiday drinks like eggnog or hot chocolate, use low-fat, skim, or non-dairy milk and leave off the whipped cream. You can also add flavor by using unsweetened cocoa powder, vanilla, or peppermint extract and spices,” Van Horn adds. “Try a holiday mocktail like sparkling water with frozen berries or a splash of 100 percent fruit juice instead.”

Add herbs, spices, and citrus

When cooking or baking, use spices, herbs, or citrus to flavor dishes instead of sugar. For recipes that call for adding chocolate chips, try adding in dried fruit (with no added sugar) or chopped walnuts. You can also lean on the natural sweetness of fruit and bake desserts like apple bread pudding or baked apples and pears with almonds.

Opt for artificial sweeteners

“Replacing sugary foods and drinks with sugar-free options containing what we call non-nutritive sweeteners (because they offer no nutritional benefit) can help people limit the amount of sugar in their diet,” Van Horn says. Stevia and monk fruit are two examples. “But it’s important they are included in an overall healthy diet and that those ‘saved’ calories aren’t then added back by eating more unhealthy foods as a reward later in the day.”

Consider your overall eating pattern

At the end of the (holi)day, Van Horn emphasizes that your overall eating pattern is most important. “Per the American Heart Association, that means emphasizing fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, vegetables, lean protein, and fish while limiting things like trans fats, sodium, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, and sugary foods and beverages.”

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