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The truth about sugar-free jams and jellies...

At Two Sisters, one of the questions that frequently arises is, “When are you going to make sugar-free jams?” Many people seem to view sugar as something evil and want to avoid it as an unnecessary source of calories, or a threat to their health. Others must avoid sugar due to diabetes or other health concerns.  At Two Sisters, we know that jams, jellies and preserves are not really designed to be sugar-free but we keep getting questions and requests so we struggle to meet public demand for low-sugar or sugar-free products to please our customers.  And we really want to provide them!  But the truth of the matter is that jams, jellies, and preserves are not really designed to be sugar-free.


Quality jams and jellies demand sugar! However, don’t be too quick to condemn it just yet. The thing to keep in mind is that sugar is essential for successful jam-making. Cutting down on the sugar in a jam recipe is just asking for failure. We often end up with a runny

mess to show for all our work. Or, we manage to create a jam that tastes good but has an unpleasant texture. Sugar not only contributes to the sweetness of the jam, it does much more than that.



The In and Outs of making Jams and Jellies:


A typical batch of cooked fruit jam may call for about 4 cups of mashed fruit, a few tablespoons of lemon juice, and as much as 7 cups of sugar. Once these have been brought to a boil, some form of liquid or crystal pectin product is blended thoroughly into the mixture before filling the jars and sealing them. Let's look at this process in a little more detail.


Safety First

Jams and jellies are absolutely the safest foods for home canning.  It's almost impossible to get sick from eating them.  The canning process includes using proper jars and lids, sterilizing jars and lids, filling hot jars with hot product, leaving the correct head space (the space between the product and the lid) so that the air can be evacuated during processing and the product can create a vacuum seal, processing in a water bath and cooling the jars correctly.


Of course, this process must be followed for all canned goods.  So why are jams and jellies so much safer than other canned goods? It's the sugar and the PH factor.  Water bath canning is used for preserving low acid foods.  Those with a ph of 4.6 or lower.  If the ph is higher than 4.6, such as milk, dairy products, meats and most vegetables, these foods should not be canned in a water bath,  These foods can be safely preserved only by using a pressure canner.  Fortunately, most fruits have a natural ph below 4.6.


Bacterial spores, molds and yeast can be present in any canned food.  For that matter, they can be present in fresh foods as well.  This isn't usually a problem.  Molds and yeast can be spotted by opening a jar and seeing that the product inside has been contaminated.  It's easy to spot.  And bacterial spores, although they can't be seen, are not a problem.  The spores are inactive.  Like seeds, waiting to be planted, nourished, watered, and exposed to light in order to grow. If conditions do not exist to nourish the spores, they will remain inactive and harmless.


Water and oxygen and food are the components necessary for bacterial spores to grow.  By drastically limiting the amount of air (vacuum sealing and proper head space) and water available in canned products, bacteria are not able to flourish and spores remain inactive. Sugar, on a molecular level, binds the water in jams and jellies so that it is not available for bacterial growth.


Most fruit contains about 90% water by weight. When sugar is added to the mashed fruit, it dissolves in the juice. Once a sufficiently high concentration has been reached, some rather interesting reactions begin to take place between the sugar and the water inside the fruit. The sugar draws water out of the fruit and forms chemical bonds which “bind” the water molecules to the sugar molecules. The bound water is held so tightly that it is no longer available to support the growth of many types of microorganisms. In this way, sugar acts as a means of preservation against future microbial growth problems.


Texture

Sugar also helps in the development of flavor and texture. . Pectin, generally the last ingredient added to the jam mixture, is obtained from the peels of citrus fruits, especially oranges. It can also be extracted from the fleshy part of apples left after the apples have been squeezed to remove their juice. Pectin itself is a large molecular compound which is capable of forming bonds with other pectin molecules to form a gel under certain conditions. It is these conditions which we want to optimize when making jam. With the sugar binding much of the water in the fruit, the pectin can then form a gel with the proper strength to create the desired texture in the jam.  If too much water is present, the pectin cannot form a strong enough gel which results in a runny texture. This is why the sugar is so important, since it is responsible for taking care of the water by chemically binding it and effectively preventing it from reacting with anything else in the jam.


Lemon juice is often added to fruit to increase the ph level.  It helps ensure that there is sufficient acidity in the jam to promote the

formation of gels by the pectin. The abundance of sugar helps mask the sour taste of the citric acid found in the lemon juice.


For those who are concerned about the sugar levels in various jams and jellies, forms of pectin have been developed that can function with more water present. These are typically marketed as “light” products and can reduce the calorie content of jams by as

much as one-third.  The problem with these lighter varieties of pectin is the texture that is usually obtained.  Although the jam may be sweet and tasty, it doesn't have that sticky, gooey texture we all love and looks more like a fruit "mash-up" than a true jam.


What's Out There

My sister and I are always on the lookout for new products or new recipes that claim to be sugar-free.  Unfortunately, most are not. Most of these recipes call for the addition of honey or concentrated fruit syrup.  For diabetics, these products are just as dangerous as refined sugar.  Smucker's Simply Fruit has recently come under attack because their product contains large amounts of fruit syrup which contains sugar. 'Concentrated fruit juice' sounds healthier and more natural than high fructose corn syrup or other sugar syrups but it's still sugar.  The strawberry version of this fruit spread contains only 30 percent strawberries. The blueberry version contains only 43 percent blueberries. Both have more fruit syrup that comes, not from berries, but from cheaper apple, pineapple, or pear juice concentrate.  And, by concentrating the juice, a juice which starts out healthy can actually become very sugary.


I looked up a popular (and quite tasty) sugar-free jam and copied the ingredients list: 

   WATER*, STRAWBERRIES+, POLYDEXTROSE*, MALTODEXTRIN*, FRUIT PECTIN, LOCUST BEAN GUM*, NATURAL FLAVOR*, CITRIC ACID, POTASSIUM SORBATE (PRESERVATIVE), SUCRALOSE (NON NUTRITIVE SWEETENER)*, CALCIUM CHLORIDE*, RED 40*. *INGREDIENTS NOT IN REGULAR JAM. +ADDS A TRIVIAL AMOUNT OF SUGAR. <0.5g/SERVING


I'm not sure I know what a lot of these ingredients are but I DO know that I don't have them in my cupboard and wouldn't know what to do with them if I did.  Two Sisters is committed to providing the very best homemade jams and jellies using all natural ingredients.


There is Hope!

There are ways to provide tasty sugar-free jams and jellies for those who are not able to tolerate high sugar concentrations.  There are recipes for delicious freezer jams or jellies that can be made and refrigerated for up to a month.  Unfortunately, in the case of shelf stable, homemade jams and jellies we've yet to be impressed.


Still, we'll keep trying.  As Donna and I grow and develop new products we're always aware of the demand for reduced sugar products and we remain committed to exploring every option to obtain a product worthy of the Two Sisters label.