Canning Without Sugar or Salt (with Video)

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If you're a canner or you've ever looked at a Ball canning book, you know that many canning recipes call for sugar - often  LOT of sugar! - and sometimes salt. So a common question is whether or not those ingredients are necessary. Can they be omitted or reduced and still produce safe, shelf-stable food?

Omitting Salt when Canning

Let's start with salt. Although humans require salt to function healthfully, those who consume a lot of restaurant or processed food often find their bodies are over-loaded with the mineral. Also, some doctors may ask patients to reduce their sodium due to certain health conditions (whether or not studies support that advice). So many people wonder: Do I really need to include the salt called for in canning recipes?

The answer is no. In canning, salt is not a preservative. It is there only for flavor and can safely be omitted, as per the Nation Center for Home Food Preservation website and other experts.

The only exception to this is if you ferment a food and then can it. Salt is absolutely necessary for safety in the fermenting process, therefore it cannot be omitted. (Besides, canning fermented food kills all the good probiotics fermenting creates!)

Omitting Sugar when Canning

What is the role of sugar in canning? Sugar:

* improves flavor,

* improves texture,

* improves color,

* makes the food last longer once the jar is opened and is stored in the refrigerator,

* and makes most types of pectin jell jams and jellies.

But the truth is, it is always safe to omit sugar in canning. The problem is, you may not like the resulting product.

Let's look at canned fruit as an example. Most tested-safe recipes call for canning any type of fruit in a sugar syrup. And while it is completely safe to can fruit in water, most people find the end result has poor flavor. The fruit will also discolor, may have a poorer texture, and won't last as long in the fridge once the jar is opened. Nevertheless, some people are satisfied with the results, especially if they choose a super sweet variety of the fruit in question and use a hot pack method. Try a small batch and see what you think.

Another alternative to canning in a sugar syrup is something that was popular during World War II, during sugar rationing. Set aside some of the fruit you're canning and crush and simmer it until its natural juices run free. Strain, add a bit of water if desired, and use it in place of sugar syrup. Of course, you are still adding sugar to the jar - just in a more natural way.

A more common alternative to sugar syrup is to use white grape juice or honey instead. But I will remind you that your body reacts to fruit juice and honey the same way it reacts to granulated sugar. Sugar is sugar is sugar, and it all causes inflammation (which is linked to pretty much every disease), strains your liver and kidneys, stimulates insulin - which makes you feel hungry, may cause gout, may cause heart disease, leads to depression, decreases cognitive health, and causes metabolic disease and diabetes. Ick.

Alternative Sweeteners for Canning

You might wonder if you can simply use your favorite alternative sweetener for canning. Unfortunately, few have been tested for safety in home canning. 

Artificial (i.e. man-made) sweeteners are something I can never recommend. They can spike blood sugar and have other negative side effects. Aspartame and saccharine are known to be unsafe for home canning because heat makes them unstable. They also result in a bitter or bland end product. Splenda is, however, considered safe for canning, even though it is artificial and not optimal for health.

Unfortunately, most natural alternative sweeteners, such as monk fruit, erythritol, and xylitol haven't been tested for safety in home canning. I do know people who use them anyway, but I am reluctant to use them myself since we don't know exactly how these sweeteners react when they go through the high heat and processing times of canning. Stevia, however, is an exception, being considered completely safe for home canning. Do use a high quality, liquid product, however, or you'll end up with weird-tasting food.

Do note that if you use an artificial or natural alternative sweetener in your home canned foods, they may not last as long once they are opened and stored in the refrigerator. One way to get around that is to can your foods in smaller jars.

See My Video on this topic (or scroll to keep reading):

A Warning About "Fruit Fresheners"

Because sugar helps prevent fruit from darkening when canning, freezing, or dehydrating, many people prefer to use a "fruit freshener" to prevent this when canning without sugar. Be forewarned, however, that if you use a store-bought fruit freshener, you must read the label carefully. The two most popular anti-browning products available in my area both contain sugar. Ball's Fruit Fresh lists dextrose as the first ingredient (meaning there is more of that ingredient than any other). Dextrose is a type of sugar. Mrs. Wages Fresh Fruit Preserver also lists sugar as its first ingredient. Click here for a list of names sugar hides under in food labels.

Instead, opt for pure acid, like Ball's or Mrs. Wages citric acid; however, do note they may be GMO. Or simply use bottled lemon juice: Submerge the fruit in a mixture of 1/4 cup of lemon juice and 4 cups of water mixed together.

Canning Jam or Jelly with Less Sugar

There's no getting around it: Jam and jelly are high sugar products. Not only does the cooked down fruit contain a lot of sugar, but most pectins, which are used to "jell" the food, require large amounts of sugar in order to work.

Unfortunately, the common "low sugar" pectins aren't all that low in sugar. They contain dextrose (which is a form of sugar) or require fruit juice (also sugar) to work properly.

There are a few ways to get around that. One is to use Pomona's Universal Pectin, which doesn't require sugar in order to form a gel. Another is to make your own pectin from tart apples.

Or you can use the old-fashioned cook down method. The key to making this method work is to understand the pectin levels in different types of fruit. If your fruit is naturally high in pectin, you're good to go. If it's not, you'll need to add some high pectin fruit in order for the jam to jell. (See "Understanding Pectin" for more details.) Tart apples, tart blackberries, lemons, limes, currants, plums (except Italian types), and sour grapes are high in pectin and are good additions to jam made primarily with lower pectin fruit.

Unfortunately, I have no way to test exactly how much sugar jam made with this method contains. After all, the method concentrates the fruit's natural sugars. But I have had my family compare my cooked down jam to conventionally-made jam and they agree: My cooked down jam tastes far less sweet.

1. Pour the fruit into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Crush it with a potato masher.

2. Stir in some sugar. I recommend starting with a minimal amount, then tasting, adding more sugar only if absolutely needed. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved.

3. Stir in bottled lemon juice - about 2 teaspoons for every 2 cups of crushed fruit. (Because the lemon juice adds acidity, it makes mold and pathogens less likely to grow in the jam. Acid also helps the jam jell. Use bottled juice, which has a standard acidity, instead of fresh juice, which could be less acidic.)

4. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Periodically, take the jam's temperature. When it has reached 220 degrees F. (sea level), it is finished. (If you are at 1,000 ft. above sea level, the jam must reach 218 degrees F. 2,000 ft = 216 degrees F. 3,000 ft. = 214 degrees F. 4,000 ft. = 212 degrees F. 5,000 ft. = 211 degrees F. 6,000 ft. = 209 degrees F. 7,000 ft. = 207 degrees F. 8,000 ft. = 205 degrees F.)

5. If you are using a low-pectin fruit for your jelly or jam, you should also do a jell test: Before you begin making the jam, place a saucer or two in the freezer. When the jam has reached the proper temperature for your elevation, remove the pot from the stove, grab a chilled saucer, and ladle a teaspoon of jam onto it. Let it cool just enough to make it safe to touch, then run your finger through the middle of the jam. If a pathway still remains where your finger ran through, the jam is set. If not, the jam needs more time to cook.

6. Ladle hot jam into hot canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes.

What I Do

Given all these choices, you might wonder what I choose to do when I'm canning. When I can fruit, I am mostly canning it for my children. I don't completely eliminate sugar from their diet, but I do try to reduce it. I am intolerant (which is a lot like being allergic) to Stevia, so I figure my kids are prone to that, too. Therefore, I simply use the least amount of sugar possible.

When I can fruit, I use the lowest sugar syrup Ball recommends, which is 5 cup of water to 1/2 cup of sugar. I use 100% cane sugar, since I know it can't be GMO. Beet sugar or sugar that doesn't cite its source is almost always GMO. Organic sugar is GMO-free, also.

When canning applesauce, if I have tart apples, I try to combine them with sweeter apples until I get a more palatable flavor. If sweeter apples aren't available, I use the least amount of sugar possible to make the sauce not too tart.

The only other food I can that calls for sugar is salsa. Sugar is sometimes used to cut the acidity in  canned goods, which is why my recipe calls for it. I simply omit the sugar, and my family still loves the salsa!

More Low Sugar Canning Tips

* When it comes to pickles and relishes, experts recommend choosing a recipe that doesn't have sugar rather than omitting the sugar in a recipe. 

* When canning catsup and BBQ sauce, I recommend omitting the sugar and adding in sweetener after opening the jars.

* In really thick, syrupy preserves (not jams, but a product with uniform chunks of fruit in very thick syrup), only real sugar works. Without it, you'll end up with fruit chunks in liquid, even when using approved Splenda or Stevia as a sweetener.

* If you can fruit in water, use the hot pack method. (That is to say, heat the fruit in water until heated through, then pack it into jars, add boiling water to cover, and process in a water bath canner.)

* If you choose to use artificial sweeteners, instead of stirring them in before processing, experts recommend adding them when opening the finished jar. Artificial sweeteners aren't stable when heated, and may turn bitter or foul-tasting after processing. Foods canned with them may also lose their sweetness when sitting on the pantry shelf.

* Consider using gelatin to thicken no-sugar jams. Such jams should not be processed in a canner, but can be safely stored in the freezer.

* Some people like to use chai seeds to thicken jams, but again, this is appropriate only for products stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Do note that in some people chai seeds may cause prescriptions that lower blood sugar to do their job a little too well, making glucose drop dangerously low. If you take such a medication, definitely talk to your doctor before consuming chai. In addition, it's important to know that chai may increase estrogen in the body.

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