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The Lowdown on Low-Sugar Pectins

The truth about low sugar pectins - LivingHomegrown.com

When I open a jar of homemade jam, I want to taste the seasonal, homegrown flavors – not refined sugar.

That is why many of my own personal preserves are low sugar recipes. And it is why I teach a lot about reducing sugar in my courses.

It is just a great way to showcase your seasonal produce.

But here’s the thing…

You can’t just cut the sugar out of a traditional recipe.

If you do, it won’t gel.

In a typical recipe, that sugar is part of a magical pectin-acid-sugar ratio that creates the proper chemistry for the recipe to gel or set up.

So…if you want to reduce or cut out refined sugar, you need to find a different way to get that gel/set.

I teach a few different methods in my classes. But I find that my beginning students are most comfortable using a commercial low or no sugar pectin from the store.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

It is by far the best way to get consistent results and I use them myself with certain fruits.

I have tested out just about every commercial “low -sugar” pectin out there and they all have pros and cons.

Let me explain:

  • How low-sugar pectins work
  • How they are NOT all created equal
  • Some of the surprising ingredients in certain pectins
  • Why I do have a favorite

How Traditional Pectin Works:

To get the gel in a traditional jam or jelly recipe, you must have a certain ratio of pectin – acid – sugar.

Pectin: is a natural carbohydrate found in all fruit and it is most responsible for getting the gel in jams/jellies. Some fruits (like apples and citrus) have a lot. Others, (like cherries) have very little.

Acid: Almost all fruit is high acid. Plus, we always add a bit more in the form of lemon juice to guarantee we have enough to get that ratio.

Sugar: The amount of sugar needed in this ratio is A LOT. That is why you will sometimes see 4-6 cups of sugar in recipes.

How low-sugar pectin works - LivingHomegrown.com

How Low-Methoxyl Pectin Works:

Most reduced sugar pectins are low-methoxyl pectins. They do NOT use the ratio above to get the gel.

Instead, they use a different ratio of: pectin – acid – calcium.

No sugar.

In fact, when you use some calcium-based pectins, you can go completely sugar-free or you can add a variety of other sweeteners instead. Either way, you will still get the gel or set up of the jam/jelly.

That means you can use honey, stevia, agave or even artificial sweeteners to sweeten the fruit.

Note: You must always read the box on the brand of low-sugar pectin you choose. Each is different. Some low-sugar pectins require you to only use their recipes to work. More info is below.

The Drawbacks to Reducing Sugar:

Yes, there are a few drawbacks to cutting sugar.

First, sugar is a natural preservative. So those high sugar recipes are less likely to go bad. Sugar inhibits bacterial growth and prevents spoilage.

Sugar also enhances color and retains it. That is why high sugar preserves are bright and vibrant in color. They will not darken or turn brown as quickly as a low/no sugar preserve will.

A low-sugar jam or jelly:

  • Will be darker (not as vibrant)
  • Will darken faster over time, but will still be safe to eat
  • Might not as long on the pantry shelf before loosing its texture.

There are important differences among low-sugar pectins - LivingHomegrown.com

Why I Have a Favorite:

My favorite “low to no sugar” pectin is Pomona’s Universal Pectin

Just to be clear:

  • I have no affiliation with Pomona.
  • I don’t know them (other than buying their product).
  • I have never been given free product.
  • This is not a paid endorsement.

I just think that although any low/no sugar pectin will open a whole new world to your canning adventures, Pomona has some extra features that I like.

Pomona’s pectin is very different from the other pectins out there.

They are a smaller company competing against the big guys dominating the marketplace.

They are not as widely distributed, so you may not know about them unless you live near a well-stocked store. (Or buy it online )

The truth about low-sugar pectins - LivingHomegrown.com

What Sets Pomona’s Apart:

The bottom line is that unlike most commercial pectins, Pomona has:

  • No sugar
  • No preservatives 

Wait…Sugar???

Yep.

Most low-sugar pectins contain sugar. (Except Pomona’s)

Read the box.

In fact, I’ll wait while you run to the cupboard to get yours off the shelf.

Are you back?  Okay…

Sure Jell Ingredients - LivingHomegrown.com

The ingredients of Sure-Jell

Most commercial low-sugar pectins have dextrose or other form of sugar in the ingredients. Dextrose can be 75% sweeter than regular sugar. So a little bit can add a lot of sweetness.

Now, keep in mind that we are NOT talking about cups of sugar here. It’s just a few spoonfuls of highly concentrated sugar in the box.

It’s not the end of the world for most people – unless you are trying to reduce sugar for health reasons.

The dextrose is there so that the preserves are sweetened and the home canner is happy with the flavor. It also helps with the gel or set.

But most people are unaware. They assume they are eliminating ALL added sugar and they are not.

And the preservatives??

Most low-sugar pectins have preservatives in the box (except for Pomona’s).

In the example above it is the sodium citrate. But every brand uses something different.

Preservatives are there to extend the shelf life of the pectin in the store.

Again, it’s not a lot. And sodium citrate is in a lot of our food.

But you should be aware of this and check your brand if you are trying to cut out preservatives all together.

One last thing:

Just like all the pectin’s out there, Pomona’s is not perfect. It can sometimes over set the jam/jelly – making it a bit too firm.

In fact, all pectin can do that.

I can dive deeper into hints and tips in another post as we are just scratching the surface on this broad topic.

But I wanted you to know your options when it comes to choosing a low-sugar pectin.

Let Me Hear From You:

Tell me …

Do you want to learn more about low-sugar preserves?

If you have made a low or no sugar jam, did it turn out as you expected?

Tell me in the comments!

Note: Some links may be affiliate links. 

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy® and is the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two teenage boys and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.