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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.

58 Comments:

  • Judy says:

    Yes I would like to know more about low sugar preserves. I have never made this type of jam but would like to know how. Thanks

    • theresa says:

      You got it Judy. Watch for more soon.

      • Renee Mustard says:

        Hi Theresa! I just finished canning 15 jars of different kinds of fig jam. I used a low sugar pectin although not the one you suggested. I just saw this blog. I am super disappointed in the fact that it really has a glue like texture if that makes sense. I guess it is over set? Now what? I wanted to give it away as gifts but I can only imagine people trying to pry the preserves out! What did I do wrong? I really prefer a softer set jam and am pretty new at this. Any suggestions?

    • KaLia says:

      I definitely want to know more. I am severely allergic to many preservatives plus I have a ton of food allergies so what goes into my food is tremendously important.

      Thank you!

    • Kathy says:

      I was amazed that some low sugar contains glucose. I need to read more. I was using Ball low sugar pectin. I will be switching to Pomona.

  • Jill Plumb says:

    WOW. Now I understand about low sugar Pectin! We always look for low or no sugar alternatives, and now I get it for canning. I have occasionally used chia seeds to thicken my jams, but pectin will increase the shelf life for sure. This year I will make loquat jam from my tree using Pomona’s. Thanks Theresa!

  • Sandy says:

    Yes! I have almost stopped making jams and jellies because of the sugar. Would love one or two jellies that don’t use too much sugar. Currently I make a prune plum butter in my crockpot with no sugar. It keeps well in jars tucked in the basement.

  • Z says:

    thanks so much for this – Pomona’s is my favourite! I bought it when in the US on a visit, now there is a mail order supplier in the UK where I live. We go foraging every year & don’t like being drowned out with sugar flavour vs the fruit. You’re right about the look – and even sometimes the slightly starchy taste … I’ve also used ICJ bought from Barry’s Farm in the US. I still have some left and that works well too. I goofed on making marmalade & forgot to add things in right order. Hubby has eaten the whole load tho, so now I’m ready to make another batch & will read more carefully 🙂 You really have to follow their process & recipe – gather everything, don’t be distracted, and remember the calcium water thing! Please keep the low sugar tips coming!

    • theresa says:

      Yes Z – It is a little bit different process and one that I had to get used to. But I love how I have more flexibility with Pomona’s. I’m glad you are still able to get it. 🙂

  • Sharon says:

    I have been using Pomona’s pectin for several years and the only jam I’m not happy with is the strawberry. It loses it’s color within 6 months. Flavor is still good but just isn’t pretty. I have the Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin book and have tried most of the recipes and they are all great. If you sign up for their email, you will get the new recipes they have developed. I love Pomona’s Pectin.

    • theresa says:

      Yes Sharon. I will have to do a post just on their book and some of their recipes. It is one of my favorite books too. I didn’t know about their email sign up though. I will check it out. Thanks!

  • Phylis Reed says:

    When using low sugar recipe from a common source, sometimes the taste is dull. Any ideas? Also, sometimes on a regular sugar jam recipe the jam looks jelled, but when it is opened it has acquired a water separation on top and is runny, a far measure from its’ thickness when it was canned. Help !

    • theresa says:

      Hi Phylis,

      You didn’t specify what the fruit was or if you added an alternative sweetener (such as honey) or if you used a commercial pectin or used a different method to try to get the gel. So, I will assume that you only used a reduced amount of sugar (no honey) and that you did in fact use a pectin. If that is the case, there are a few possible reasons depending upon what you mean by “separation”. I will explain in my answers below:

      1) Are you talking about the fruit being at the bottom (because it sunk) and the top half of the jam was clear (like jelly), that is very common. It happens when the fruit is too heavy or you did not cook enough to get a thicker gel. Since you say it is runny, that would also make me think you need to cook it longer next time.

      Jam making is not an exact science in that the water content of the fruit and acidity of the fruit can affect your recipe. So it may not be anything that you did wrong and it may not be a problem with the recipe. I could just be that this batch was a bit different and just needed more cooking time than the recipe called for. Sometimes it just happens.

      2) Now if the separation is more like a weeping – meaning that the jam seems okay (but runny) and there is a layer of water on top – well, that is usually caused by having too much acid in the mix. This can happen when too much lemon juice is added or when the fruit just happened to have a more acid pH level. Again – it may not be anything you did wrong.

      Normally I would say that if you love the flavor, don’t worry about it being runny. Just use it in salad dressings, sauce or as a glaze on chicken. But you said it has a dull taste. Did the fruit you started with have an awesome taste and the resulting taste is dull? Or was the fruit average at best? If it started out great but ended dull, it may have been the pectin. If it never tasted that great to begin with, then I would bump it up with spices such as cinnamon or vanilla – depending upon what the fruit was.

      I’m sorry to give you so many possibilities, but without knowing exactly what you made or what the recipe was, I have to guess. I hope that helped.

  • Rachel says:

    Hi, I have a question not about sugar but about lemon juice. Can I freeze lemon juice since lemons are in season in our area now, and then thaw it and use it in preserves over the next few months, or does freezing and thawing do anything to the acidity?

    • theresa says:

      You absolutely can freeze the lemon juice. That is an excellent way to save it. Freezing and thawing will not affect the acidity. Go for it!

  • I have never canned jam before. I use Mrs. Wages freezer jam because I add the least amount of sugar to the berries.(Yes, it does have dextrose and potassium sorbate) I don’t can it because I think it tastes most fresh as freezer jam ( I do strawberry, raspberry, marionberry). Now, I have some Pomona’s and I do plan to try canning jam this year. I would love it if it tasted fresh because freezer space is very valuable.

  • Sara says:

    Hi, I would love to know more about sugar free preserving. I am reasonably new to using a preserving kit – recently purchased a Mad Millie kit.
    I am also eagerly awaiting your next online course, so that I can seriously get to understand and experiment. This is such an exciting and useful process to learn and do.

    • theresa says:

      Hi Sara,

      Kuddos to you for diving into canning with us! My course will reopen soon. I am currently adding some new modules and expanding on others after getting feedback on what else my students want. I will let you know when we open the doors again. It will be in plenty of time for this year’s canning season.

  • Sara says:

    I used low-sugar Sure Jel for years, but had started shifting to Pomona’s (love it for blueberry, still fiddling with raspberry). Last year, I couldn’t find the low-sugar Sure Jel and didn’t want to do the full sugar variety, so I switched to Pomona’s almost exclusively. Love the advice they give on using other sweeteners—maple blueberry is fabulous.

  • JACKIE KRONSTED says:

    Have you ever tried the recipes that use FROZEN WHITE GRAPE JUICE as a low sugar substitute?

  • Sharon says:

    I too have been using Pamona’s pectin for many years(30 plus)! I was raised in Alaska where berries are numerous and jams and jellies are one of our few luxuries, however all of the sugar in the recipes of my grandmother really masked the flavor of the berries. I first found Pamona’s at a health food store and started using it for all my jams and jellies. Through the years I have made adjustments to my recipes, but Pamona’s is the best I have found.

  • Rose L says:

    Thank you thank you! This is exactly the kind of information I needed. The more the better so please tell us all you know. I’m diabetic, grain and sugar free and I no longer purchase or eat the majority of processed foods. It’s my life mission to grow and preserve everything we eat in this house and I appreciate you and your knowledge so very much!

    • theresa says:

      Thank you Rose. I’m so happy to help out. You have quite a challenge there. I will keep posting and I hope it keeps helping expand what you can make.

  • Colleen says:

    I would like to hear more. Your information on the pectins was fascinating but I have a feeling it is just scratching the surface of preserves that can be made au natural…….

  • Erin says:

    I love Pomona’s! I discovered it a couple years ago and have never looked back. As mentioned above, the strawberry jam did go a peculiar grey colour, as did my ginger rhubarb and vanilla jam, but I don’t really care. If I’m serving it to people along something, I might add a drop or two of natural food colouring to make it look closer to what they would expect. The flavour is great though. I have had a jam or two set a bit too much, but I’ve found it much more reliable than the sugar-activated pectins I’ve used in the past. For things like apricot or peach jams it was just incredible – all fruit taste and not sickly sweet.

    • theresa says:

      Good to know about the strawberry & the ginger/rhubarb color being off. I’m trying to think if I have ever used it in strawberry and I don’t think I have. So I’m glad to know of your experience with that. But I agree – the color is second to flavor. Flavor is where it’s at!

  • Lisa R says:

    Also to make a note…. Pomona’s is the only certified Gluten-free pectin out there which makes it safe for those of us with Celiacs. Also most pectins outside of Pomona’s are not corn free. Maltodextrin and dextrose quite often is made from corn. These are little tips to watch for as I discovered for I am not only celiac but highly corn intolerant too.

  • Misty says:

    Hi Theresa!

    I am fairly new to canning jams and jellies.

    I too am always looking for ways to lower the sugar content in the recipes. While I hope to lower the sugar in our diet, my main reason is to find ways for the flavor of the fruit to shine through and not be covered in heavy sweetness.

    I have a few recipes that I use which only call for fruit, sugar, and lemon juice and have had good results. With that in mind, is it necessary to use pectin at all?

    I have never tried Pomona’s, but of the low sugar pectin’s I have tried, the amount of sugar is equal to the recipe I use without the pectin plus they call for fruit juice to be added which, in a sense, increases the sugar content of the recipe.

    Thanks so much!

    • theresa says:

      Hi Misty,

      No you do not always have to add a pectin. If you scroll down through the comments below, I just listed two posts I have done where I teach how to get the set with temperature alone. (It is in my reply to Karen).

      Hope that helps!

  • Debbi Dubbs says:

    I’m a Master Food Preserver in Ca. and I’ve been using Pomona Pectin for ever, it works so well with a little sugar or without and try it with honey! Thanks for the great article!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Love the topic. I have been using Pomona’s for several years. I definitely reduce or adjust the pectin since the set can be quite firm. I like my jam a little looser. I am definitely interested in your experiences with low sugar preserving.

  • Tori Kelly says:

    Thank you for offering to go more fully into pectins, particularly low-sugar. I’ve normally avoid them because I can’t seem to control the gel (too soft or too hard), even have tried to make my own pectin stock (tricky) with varying results of success. Worked with a french pectin “Pectin jaune” (the french or european pectin are more specific depending on desired end product (e.g., jelly vs fruit leathers). Fascinating topic, now I simply want to achieve a fresh tasting, minimal sugar product.

    • theresa says:

      Hi Tori,

      I will write more on this topic as it seems to be one people are wanting. And yes, the gel is tricky. Unfortunately, it is not an exact science and that is the issue. But I feel it is worth the extra guess work so we can get the flavor we want.

      I’m interested in what you said about Pectin Jaune. I am not familiar with that one. How did you get it? Did you order online or were you visiting somewhere in Europe?

  • Alice says:

    Yes, please elaborate on using no sugar pectin. I purchased it last year and every time I used it our jam/jelly was so firm we have to cut it with a knife. I let it sit out before using or pop it in the microwave……………..

    • theresa says:

      Yes Alice, that can be an problem with no/low sugar pectins. The issue is that pectin within the fruit is not an exact science. So you can have fluctuations. With Pomona’s Pectin, you can reduce the amount you add and it sometimes takes one batch to know how much you need. I will write more on that topic going forward.

  • c. hennes says:

    I have a local source for cane syrup and would like to know more about substituting liquid sweeteners in recipes. Also a bit about freezer jams-my mother used

  • JenCozz says:

    I definitely would like to know more about low/no sugar recipes and using other natural sweeteners.

  • Carolyn Nye says:

    I just made no sugar blueberry cardamom jam with Ball real fruit pectin, following their ingredient ratios. They is a very thin layer of liquid on top of the jam when it set. I think it’s water from the canning bath because some air bubbles were coming out of the top of the jar/lid once placed in the bath. Is this a health concern with a no sugar jam? Everything else seems fine and the jars did seal.

  • Michael says:

    I used to always do traditional cooked jam, added an apple and lemon juice to get it to set. I never found the apple had a taste in my jams (strawberry, blueberry, raspberry). So, I just tried the Pomona’s this weekend. The raspberry looks and tastes good. The strawberry tastes good but it is kind of pinker than normal (rather than red), and it’s chunky, not quite lumpy… I used the maximum amount of sugar in Pomona’s directions. Do you think that will help it to keep its colour longer/extend the shelf life? Thank you!

  • Lindy says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I have a big batch of strawberries and only low sugar pectin in the house.
    Was trying to find out if I can exchange the low sugar pectin for regular pectin in a recipe. After reading this I don’t think I can. I appreciate all of the effort that you put into this great post.

  • Laurie Watson says:

    What if I accidentally used the low sugar box of sure jell but used the recipe for the original sure jell box (the 7 cups of sugar recipe) for strawberry jam? What will be the outcome? Too sweet? Taste the same? I made many jars to give away and dont know which ones I made the mixup on. Boo.

    • theresa says:

      Laurie – It all depends upon the particular recipe you used and the chemical make up of the low sugar pectin. But since low sugar pectin will set (or gel) without any or with just very little sugar, the extra sugar you added probably will have no affect on the set. It will however make the recipe sweet. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It just depends upon the fruit you were using and how sweet it ended up. But if I were to guess, I think your finished product will just be sweet but otherwise okay.

  • Lee says:

    I made jam for the first time for 2016 Christmas presents. I love cherries, so that’s what I picked ked. Now, after reading your posts, it’s become clear that it’s the most difficult fruit to work with (of course!). The first batch did not set. I’d reduced the sugar to the level that tasted good, and then read the directions on the pectin saying, “Do NOT reduce sugar or jam won’t set.”. I poured it all back out and with the help of the internet and additional pectin, re-cooked it and it worked–with a lot of sugar. Merry Christmas co-workers! Now, I needed to buy low-sugar pectin, which I did, and made four more successful batches. I’m not sure how well they will hold up over time, by hopefully everyone will eat them before it’s an issue. Thank you for your informative posts! Next year will be better.

  • Courtney montgomery says:

    Hi i love your post about low sugar and no sugar preserving.i have a question about pacific pectin and how to use their low sugar &no sugar pectins and how to create my “own “jelly/jam recipes.

    • theresa says:

      Hi Courtney,
      I’m not sure exactly what your question is. If you want to know specifically how to use a certain brand of pectin, it might be best to ask that company directly. Although I know and use many different pectins, I can’t know all the specifics of every brand made. I’m sure they can help you better than I could if you have question on their product.

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