Most of the recipes Americans and Europeans have used to preserve at home , from making jam, pickles and canning fruit, often include a large amount of sugar. There are many reasons to want to reduce or eliminate the sugar, from diabetes, weight gain to seeking a natural diet. Here's how to can safely with less or no added sugar.

People who need to restrict their intake of sugar or salt often wonder if it is safe to preserve foods without these ingredients. Most often, the answer is yes.

What to know about sugar in canning


Canning fruit

General tips

While it is safe to can fruit without added sugar, the quality of the product may be compromised. Sugar helps fruits keep their bright color and firm texture.  It is not needed to prevent spoilage.
  • When canning without sugar, use high quality fruit.
  • Overripe fruit will soften excessively.
  • Take special care to follow steps that prevent darkening of light-colored fruit.

Several treatments may be used to prevent or retard darkening. One is to coat the fruit as it is cut with a solution of 1 teaspoon (3 g) crystalline ascorbic acid or 3,000 mg crushed vitamin C tablets per cup of water. Another is to drop the cut pieces in a solution of water and ascorbic acid, citric acid or lemon juice. Use 1 teaspoon (3,000 mg) ascorbic acid, 1 teaspoon citric acid or 3/4 cup lemon juice to 1 gallon water.

An ascorbic acid/water solution serves as a desirable anti-darkening treatment, adds nutritive value in the form of vitamin C, and does not change the flavor of the fruit as lemon juice may do. Ascorbic acid is available in crystalline or tablet form in drug stores and supermarkets. Ascorbic acid mixtures, such as ascorbic acid combined with sugar or with citric acid and sugar, also are available. For these, follow the manufacturer's directions. In such mixtures, ascorbic acid usually is the important active ingredient. Because of its dilution with other materials, these forms may be more expensive than pure ascorbic acid.

If ascorbic acid products are not used in the pretreatment of cut fruit, they may be added to the canning juices or liquids before processing. This will help keep the fruit from darkening during storage. Use 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crystalline ascorbic acid or 750 to 1,500 mg crushed vitamin C tablets per quart of fruit. Commercial ascorbic and citric acid mixtures such as "Fruit Fresh" or "ACM" also may be used according to manufacturer's directions.

Specific guidelines

Reducing sugar

If you desire less sweetness or reduced calories, try using lighter syrup. Just reduce the amount of sugar in relation to the water. You may need to experiment to determine how much sugar you can eliminate and still find the product acceptable.

Natural sugar substitutes

Another alternative is to can the fruit in frozen or bottled unsweetened juice. Reconstituted frozen apple juice concentrate works well with peaches, pears, apricots, plums, and red or white sweet cherries. It can be diluted with extra water to reduce the apple flavor and reduce calories further. Frozen pineapple juice works well with pears or peaches. Frozen pineapple juice gives a fresher flavor than canned pineapple juice. White grape juice works well with pears, peaches, or apricots; and red grape juice compliments plums and red cherries. When canning peaches or pears in fruit juice, a stick of cinnamon can be added to each jar for added flavor.

Mild flavored honey can be used in canning syrups, but honey has more calories per tablespoon than sugar. Honey does taste sweeter than an equal amount of sugar. Honey or light-colored corn syrup may be substituted for up to half the sugar called for in a canning syrup recipe. However, these products do not reduce the calorie or carbohydrate content of the sugar syrup, and thus are not acceptable sugar replacements for people on diabetic diets. See this page for more detailed information about using honey as a substitute.

Eliminating sugars

For those on special diets that must avoid all added sugar, fruit can be canned in water without any added sugar. However, you may find the fruit is less firm than you are accustomed to. When canning fruit without sugar, use the hot pack method; i.e. cook the fruit in water until hot throughout before packing the hot fruit into hot jars and then add boiling water to cover, seal and process. Substituting plain water for the sugar syrup reduces the calorie content of canned fruit by approximately 205, 280 or 375 calories per pint, assuming 2/3 cup of thin, medium or thick syrup, respectively, is replaced with water.

Most artificial sweeteners should be added when the canned goods are served rather than using them in canning. Heat applied during processing may cause the loss of sweetening power or cause an unpleasant after taste or flavor change.

Sucralose (Stevia (or if you prefer, Splenda)) is an exception and can be used in canning fruit. Sucralose will maintain its sweetness but will not promote the firmness of the fruit any better than canning in water.


Freezing Fruit

All fruits may be frozen without added sugar. Sugar is not needed for the preservation of frozen fruits, but it does help the fruit maintain quality longer.

Berries and fruits such as cherries, plums, dates, grapes, melon balls, pineapple chunks and rhubarb slices that do not darken when exposed to air are best frozen in single layers on trays, then packed into freezing bags or containers. These fruits may be served partially thawed, giving some juice, but with some frozen firmness still remaining in the fruit itself.

Light-colored fruits such as apples, peaches and apricots freeze well in unsweetened juice or water. Pack them in rigid containers, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace for square pint containers and 1 inch for quart containers. Retard darkening of light-colored fruits by one of the methods discussed in the section on canning fruit without sugar. Artificial sweeteners, if available, may be added to the water in an amount equal in sweetness to a sugar-sweetened syrup. Make a small batch to test for acceptability before freezing large quantities.


Canning Relishes and Pickles

Sweet relish and pickle recipes do not adapt as well to sugar-free canning as do plain fruits. Try recipes that call for artificial sweeteners, but don't be too discouraged if some batches are disappointing. Finished products often are mushy or have an unsuitable flavor. When canning pickles and relishes, use the boiling water-bath method and processing times that are adjusted for altitude.


Preserving Jams and Jellies

Sugar helps in gel formation, serves as a preserving agent, and contributes to the flavor of jams and jellies. It also has a firming effect on fruit, a property useful in making preserves.

Jams and jellies can be made somewhat satisfactorily without added sugar but tend to resemble more of gelatin-fruited dessert than a true jam or jelly. They generally lok darker and are more runny. Such products generally are sweetened with a non-nutritive sweetener and gelled with unflavored gelatin, gums or modified pectin. Jams with less sugar than usual also may be made with concentrated fruit pulp that contains less liquid and less sugar.

Two types of modified pectin are available for home use. One gels with one-third less sugar. This one is rapidly disappearing from the store shelves in favor of the newer no-sugar pectin. On of these no-sugar pectins is made by Ball, Kerr and Mrs. Wages. The other is a low-methoxyl pectin (Pomona) that requires a source of calcium for gelling.It's easy to use, too, just different.

To prevent spoilage, process jars of low-sugar jams and jellies longer in a boiling water-bath canner than regular jams or jellies. Carefully follow recipes and processing times provided with each modified pectin product. Altering the proportion of acids and fruits may result in spoilage. Low-sugar jams and jellies also may be stored in the refrigerator for use within three to four weeks or in the freezer for longer storage.

Note: Sugar-free jams and jellies contain the carbohydrate that is naturally present in the fruit. Commercial low-calorie jelling mixes may provide additional carbohydrates in the form of maltodextrin or other saccharides. Jams and jellies made with artificial sweeteners and unflavored gelatin or added pectin generally provide 8 to 12 calories (2 to 3 grams carbohydrate) per tablespoon. Those made with a commercial low-calorie jelling mixture such as maltodextrin provide 16 to 20 calories (4 to 5 grams carbohydrates) per tablespoon.


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