Weekend Preserver Series: Sugars & Sweeteners

On one hand many of us want to eat more good, whole foods. And on the other we want glistening jars of fruit preserves on our larder shelves. Meanwhile we give white granulated sugar the evil eye. What's a home canner to do?

 The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was charged with working on the complex problem of farming and rural poverty. Self-sufficiency and thus home canning was a part of the program. Mrs. Thomas Benton, June 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photography Division, FSA/OWI Collection, #LC-USW3- 034350-C.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was charged with working on the complex problem of farming and rural poverty. Self-sufficiency and thus home canning was a part of the program. Mrs. Thomas Benton, June 1943. Library of Congress, Prints and Photography Division, FSA/OWI Collection, #LC-USW3- 034350-C.

Why do we use sugar?

Sugar makes those jars glisten, helps fruit gel, adds terrific flavor, helps fruit retain color, and inhibits growth of microorganisms. Sugar plays a role in savory canned goods too. In cucumber pickles sugar can add firmness and in other pickles it is a counterbalance to the vinegar and salt.

Sugar & Canned Fruit

Sugar can be safely reduced or eliminated when canning fruit (whole or pieces). Keep in mind that quality (color and texture) and shelf life will be affected. Be sure to use only wonderful fruits for canning: ripe but firm.

Lower sugar and no sugar canned fruit will darken and might be less appealing visually but will still taste good. You may want to eat lower or no sugar canned fruit within a few months rather than within a year.

Consider using unsweetened fruit juice or a lighter syrup to can fruit rather than no sugar.

The sugar substitutes sucralose or stevia can be used to can fruit--although these will not help with retaining color or texture. 

Sugar & Pie Fillings

First, be sure that you use Clear Jel or Thick Gel for canned pie fillings or plan to thicken when you are preparing the pie, tart, turnover, etc. 

Corn starch, Sure-Gell, flour, arrowroot, agar flakes, gelatin, and other products that seem similar, or anything creative cannot be substituted for Clear Jel or Thick Gel when canning.

Clear Jel and Thick Gel are modified corn starches. Which means if you are looking to eliminate GMOs these products might not make the cut. 

If you have questions: Clear Jel is made and distributed by Ingredion. Thick Gel is made and distributed by Carnet Foods. And while modified corn starches hit the market in 1940s--we could decide we don't need them. Personally, I don't want to buy food from a company that's "Developing Ideas. Delivering Solutions."

Okay, great, I am not so stoked about pie filling now. What can I do instead? Can the fruit and then use the canned fruit to make a pie using a thickener of your liking. 

Sugar & Fruit Spreads (jelly, jam, preserves, marmalades, conserves, butters)

Sugar in this case is a preservative--it is inhibiting the growth of microorganisms. The sugar binds with the water making it unavailable to support the growth of microorganisms.  Full sugar recipes are less likely to encounter spoilage and shelf life shortcomings compared to low or no sugar recipes. 

Sugar is important if you want a jellied product rather than just a fruit syrup. Although, fruit syrups are often under rated--a fruit syrup is a terrific homemade product! 

What about lower sugar and Pomona's Pectin or pectin substitutes and fruit spreads?

The key here is follow the directions! Don't get creative, use the amount of sugar (and acid) called for in the recipe. Pomona's Pectin can be used with honey, agave, maple syrup, and other sweeteners. 

What about sugar substitutes and fruit spreads?

Saccharin and aspartame may impact bitterness and are not recommended. Some artificial sweeteners are negatively impacted when processed at high temperatures. Alternatively, consider making a freezer jam. 

What about honey and fruit spreads?

Honey can be substituted for a portion of the sugar in a fruit spread recipe up to to 50%. The flavor of the honey can affect the flavor of the fruit, this can be an asset in some fruit spreads like spiced peach jam. Select honeys light in flavor and color if you prefer a less intense honey flavor. Keep in mind that honey should not be offered to young people under the age of 12 months. 

What about sugar and pickling?

Sugar substitutes are not recommended for pickling. Sugar aids in adding firmness to cucumber pickles--not using the recommended sugar, salt, and vinegar can mean shriveled cucumber pickles. Brown sugar, evaporated cane sugar, and other cane sugars can be used for cucumber pickles and other pickles but the color and flavor will be affected.

What about sugar and sweet pickles?

Bread & butter pickles, sweet pickles, and sweet relish have that lovely balance of spices, sweet, tart. I don't recommend messing with a good thing. What if you really want to or need to use a sugar substitute? Consider rinsing dill pickles, sprinkling with a sugar substitute, and the pickles rest in the fridge for a hour before eating. 

What about organic evaporated cane sugar?

Sure, this is fine to use. But, it may impart a darker color and affect the flavor of preserved foods.

Geez, that's a lot! What do you do?

I use full sugar recipes for fruit spreads without the use of any packaged pectin. Most often I use light or medium syrup for canned fruit. I don't use any commercial thickening agents. And we enjoy bread & butter pickles, sweet relish, and sweet pickles without using sugar substitutes. 

Last Words on Sugar

Of course there are plenty of if, then, and buts. What about corn syrup? What about molasses? Usually molasses isn't used in home canning because of its assertive flavor. Can I use evaporated cane sugar and honey? What about Mrs. Wages' products for low sugar preserves? What about Ball pectin products? And the questions go on! Check out the Reliable Resources below for more information.

Be safe and eat well.


Reliable Resources

Please be aware of acceptable modifications (University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension PDF, May 2015) that can be made to a home canning recipe--keep in mind that not all modifications, even popular ones are safe! 

If you are ever in doubt regarding safety, be sure to check a reliable resource. Even recently published books might contain recipes that are not suitable for safe home cannin