Health is an admirable reason to reduce the amount of sugar in homemade preserves, but not the only one, local food educators say.

Health is an admirable reason to reduce the amount of sugar in homemade preserves, but not the only one, local food educators say.

“It’s just like eating the fruit off the tree,” says Jackie Greer, an Oregon State University master food preserver.

“I like the fruitier flavor,” says master food preserver Vickie Belknap. “It doesn’t have that cloying sweetness.”

More and more food experts agree that fruit spreads taste better without so much sugar. Cooks can learn strategies for eliminating or decreasing sugar in home-canned jams, jellies and fruits at a Tuesday class with master food preservers in Central Point. Participants can taste several low- and no-sugar products at the demonstration.

“There’s a lot of interest, not only among diabetics but people who want to be more health-conscious, as well,” Greer says. “People want to know what alternatives they have.”

Yet it’s not as easy as halving the amount of sugar — seven to eight cups in many jam recipes — or swapping honey or artificial sweeteners for refined cane sugar, Greer says.

Pectin is paramount, and the brand suited to one recipe may not be right for another, she says. Common pectins for low- and no-sugar preserving are: Ball Corporation’s Fruit Jell No-Sugar-Needed Pectin, Kerr Fruit Pectin Lite, Mrs. Wage’s Lite Home Jell, Pomona’s Universal Pectin and Slimset LM Pectin.

“You cannot interchange pectins,” Greer says.

Nor can cooks substitute sweeteners. Find a recipe that calls for honey or agave syrup, if that’s what you prefer, experts say. Available at Ashland Food Co-op and Medford’s Food 4 Less, Pomona’s Universal Pectin includes instructions specific to honey and agave, which are, themselves, interchangeable, experts say.

“When you can use honey, you can use agave,” Greer says. “Agave’s something there’s a growing interest in.”

Master food preservers, however, do not recommend artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda, in any home canning. These break down under high heat and can become bitter, Greer says. If added at the end of cooking, chemical sweeteners aren’t as likely to break down, but the preserves may lose their sweetness after several months, she adds.

Simply reducing sugar in a jam or jelly renders it unsafe for storage at room temperature, Greer says. But cooks can choose to store preserves that deviate from an approved recipe in the refrigerator or freezer, she says.

Some recipes, such as those that call for the thickening agent ClearJel or unflavored gelatin in lieu of pectin, will be suitable only for refrigerator or freezer storage, Greer adds.

“Freezer jams are wonderful.”

That said, cooks have to adjust their expectations of low- and no-sugar preserves, experts say. Jams and jellies containing little or no sugar are softer than typical. Fruit canned without sugar will be mushier than fruit canned in syrup, which tends to have a firm texture.

The shelf life of low- and no-sugar preserves is shorter. It’s even more important to consume them within a year — master food preservers’ general guideline for all home-canned food.

A final point to ponder for cooks who like to give jams and jellies away: Low- and no-sugar ones just aren’t as pretty.

“You don’t get quite the color preservation,” says Mary Shaw, culinary educator at Ashland Food Co-op.

Although Tuesday’s class comes in response to demand for low- and no-sugar canning recipes, some master food preservers, like Ellen Scannell, say you just can’t beat the originals.

“My theory is if you’re trying to cut down on the sugar,” Scannell says, “just cut down on the amount you’re eating.”