How To Make Healthier Homemade Jams & 10 Fruits To Use
In theory, opting for a fruit-based condiment should reward you with some sort of automatic healthy eating award. In reality, most of the jams, jellies, and other fruity toppers we slather on our morning toast aren't exactly doing us a lot of favors in the nutrition department.
According to nutrition consultant and natural chef Karyn Forsyth Duggan, M.S., BBS, the big problem with store-bought jam can be summed up in one word: "Sugar!" she says. "Popular brands of jam can have more than 3 teaspoons of sugar per tablespoon of jam. That may not seem like much, but if you consume about 2 tablespoons of jam on something that's already a little sweet such as a freshly baked scone or a popular brand of bread, which could contain up to 5 grams of sugar per slice, it all starts to add up quite quickly. Without realizing it, you may have inadvertently consumed something close to the equivalent (in terms of sugar content) of a soda!"
It's important to note, of course, that partaking in sugar from time to time, doesn't necessarily mean you're sabotaging your overall well-being. "Jams contain natural and added sugar, but that doesn't make them 'unhealthy,'" says Kris Sollid, R.D., senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council. "Whether you purchase jam from a store, farmers market, or make it at home, sugar is added to jam out of necessity—to act as a natural preservative and also to form the proper consistency of gel. Any food's contribution to health (positive or negative) depends on how much of it you eat and what else your diet consists of. That said, some jams are higher in added sugars than others. If you're looking to reduce the amount of added sugar you consume from jam, compare Nutrition Facts labels while you shop, and choose varieties that are lower in added sugars."
About those labels: Duggan says newer jam brands are doing a bit better in terms of moderating their sugar content and says because nutrition labels were updated in July 2018, there is more of a spotlight on the added sugars in products, but "manufacturers are not obliged to provide any information to enable understanding of how much sugar is in their products; i.e., most people don't know how to interpret a gram!" Duggan does offer one simple rule of thumb for analyzing labels in the absence of manufacturer-provided guidance: "Divide the total grams of sugar by 4," she says. "That provides you with a visual of the number of teaspoons. So, for example, if there are 8 grams of sugars in your jam of choice, you now know that equates to 2 teaspoons of sugar."
But if you think reduced- or low-sugar jams are a safer bet, be careful. "The No. 1 thing to watch out for with store-bought jam is added sugar (be that cane sugar, corn syrup, etc.)," says registered dietitian and integrative nutrition health coach, Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, INHC. "Artificial sweeteners can also be problematic, as they may condition you to expect higher levels of sweetness, making it harder to be satisfied with naturally sweet foods."
Another thing about store-bought jams to consider is that their eye-catching labels may suggest they contain ingredients they don't—like, for instance, fruit. "Many store-bought jams and jellies contain no real fruit," says sports dietitian Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., CSSD. "Often, those that do have very little fruit and are rather made of various refined or ultra-processed sugars as well as artificial colors and flavors. While reaching for a product like this once in a blue moon won't make or break your health, if it's something you enjoy regularly throughout the week, you may want to reconsider your purchase or consider making your own."
"Often, food companies add unhealthy ingredients to jams such as high-fructose corn syrup and/or corn syrup to add sugar to the recipe," says registered dietitian nutritionist Leah Silberman, RDN. "Labels that claim their products are 'natural' do not always mean they don't contain added sugars."
10 fruits for jam making.
So if you are looking to reduce your sugar intake, store-bought products—particularly jams—may not be the best bet. But if you're craving a real preserve or other fruity topping for toast and other treats, why not consider DIY-ing it?
"When you make your own jam, you can control more variables," says life coach and holistic nurse practitioner Victoria Albina, N.P., MPH. "You can make sure you're using only organic or biodynamic fruit, you can choose the kind of sugar you use, you can leave the skins on for added fiber, and you can put your own intentions into the cooking process."
But with a billion different varieties of fruits out there, which ones make the best jam ingredients? "If you're new to making your own jam, a high-pectin fruit is a good place to start since they'll naturally thicken as you cook them," Cording says. "A few of my favorites are apples, pears, plums, and cranberries."
A few fruits to consider in your jam-making journey:
- Strawberries: "When in doubt, go for berries," Albina says. "They have a lower glycemic index (spike your blood sugar less) than other fruit and are more nutrient-dense—plus they're so delicious!" Strawberries grow in a variety of locations throughout the country, so their "peak season" actually lasts from January through November, depending on where you're sourcing your strawberries from. Look for strawberries that are a deep, shiny red color and have a plump shape and no blemishes. Take a sniff to make sure they have that signature strawberry scent, too.
- Blackberries: Blackberries also grow in a variety of locations and typically peak in June in the South and July in the North. Ripe blackberries are a deep black color and are full and plump.
- Raspberries: Raspberries are at their peak in mid- to late summer in the United States and should be bright, plump, and firm when they're ready to eat.
- Cherries: Cherries typically hit their stride from May through August, and the best ones are shiny and plump cherries with fresh green stems and a deep color. But the color of the cherry itself will depend on the variety you choose.
- Blueberries: Blueberries can thrive anywhere from May to September, depending on your location. The best ones are blue, all the way around—avoid any with a hint of green or red.
- Cranberries: Unlike many other jam-friendly fruits, cranberries are mostly harvested from mid-September through early November. Good cranberries are a red to dark crimson color and firm to the touch. One way to test if they're ready to eat: Bounce them against a flat surface to make sure they're springy.
- Plums: Stone fruits like plums can be in season anywhere from the end of May all the way into October. Ripe plums should feel a bit heavy when you hold them and have a bit of give (too soft probably means they're overripe).
- Oranges: You can usually find oranges any time of year, but the best ones usually grow between November and January. Ripe oranges are firm with thin, smooth skin and no soft spots. Another rule of thumb to follow: The riper the orange, the heavier it will feel.
- Currants: Currants are usually harvested in late summer, and ripe fruits should be soft and juicy.
- Peaches: Peaches are grown in a variety of states from California to Florida, so the season can last anywhere from May to September. Ripe peaches are slightly soft and have a sweet smell, with a round shape and dark yellow hue.
Making basic homemade jam, without added pectins.
There are a huge variety of homemade jam recipes out there, but the basic concept is simple: Choose one or more fruits from the list above, heat on the stove, and choose a sweetener that fits your lifestyle. "Rather than regular cane sugar, I'm always looking for a sugar with more nutrient density," Duggan says. "So, I'd consider coconut sugar, maple syrup, or brown rice syrup. A super-quick recipe to consider is chia berry jam."
"If you're making your own healthy homemade jam, fruits high in pectin are the best to use as they thicken better," says holistic nutritionist, Mandy King, CNP, NNCP, BCom. "Fruits like apples, apricots, blackberries, and plums have a higher pectin content, but strawberries and raspberries still have some pectin so can be used too."
King has a super-easy, all-natural recipe for low-sugar strawberry jam that's ready in under 20 minutes: Just combine the following ingredients into a food processor or blender and blend until chunky.
- 2 cups strawberries
- 2 tbsp. chia seeds
- 2 tbsp. honey
Then, pour the mixture into a pot on the stove over medium heat and stir constantly until the mixture starts bubbling. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until it thickens; cool, and enjoy. "I love using honey instead of cane sugar but also suggest reducing the typical amount of sugar a jam recipe calls for, regardless of the form of sugar you use," King adds.
"If I'm having toast (gluten-free), I love putting nut butter on it instead of jam," King says. "It's more of a savory flavor but also adds some healthy fats to keep you full for longer and balance your blood sugar."
"While it's a personal decision, I would probably say use a lesser amount of organic cane sugar if you're adding sugar to your jam recipe," Silberman says. "There are other syrups that have a lower glycemic index than cane sugar, but they will likely alter the consistency of the jam, and, given most people use roughly a teaspoon to tablespoon amount at a time, it doesn't feel worth it to me."
"I love using honey or maple syrup in place of white sugar, and I've also had good results using allulose, if you're looking for a sweetener with fewer calories and a lower glycemic response," Cording says. "You can also use chia seeds to thicken the jam if you're using a lower pectin fruit."
"Depending on your taste preferences, you could still use refined sugar but may actually get more flavor by using a sugar in the raw or opting for a natural sweetener such as raw honey or pure maple syrup," Jones says. "These work especially well if you're cooking or reducing the fruit." One option Jones loves is this mango chia jam. She also recommends this simple strategy for making your own berry-based jam: "Just heat fresh or frozen blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries over low to medium heat and add a touch of pure maple or honey along with a dash of vanilla extract. Reduce until it reaches your desired texture, and serve warm or refrigerate for up to one week in a sealed container."
"If you are feeling a bit more motivated, a mango or citrus jam can come together well by utilizing whole or milled chia seeds," Jones says. "These fruits are rich in pectin, but the chia helps them hold together even more and promotes even more satiety with fiber, protein, and healthy fats."
Chia seeds are a popular add-in for dietitians, thanks to their binding capabilities. "As a dietitian who is focused on improving health, the version of 'jam' that I make simply requires blending thawed strawberries (or raspberries), adding chia seeds and fresh lemon juice, and allowing the combination to sit overnight," Silberman says. "Heating fruit at certain temperatures can reduce its antioxidant capacity, so keeping it cold gives you a bigger bang for your nutrient buck, so to speak. The chia seeds add fiber and omega-3s, and when sitting in liquid, they draw water and expand, providing a more gelatin-like texture. The lemon juice acts as a natural preservative. Of course, this recipe will not yield what most consumers recognize as typical 'jam,' but it's delicious, healthy, and my go-to."
Making homemade jam without added sugar.
If you find the idea of chia seeds and other ingredients intriguing, you might want to consider skipping the traditional version of jam altogether and opting for a nutrient-rich alternative. "Chia pudding can be a delicious snack, but if you're looking for a jam replacement, chia jam is an option too," Jones says. "Chia puddings tend to be more thick and are often made without fruit, while chia jams are rich in fruit and use chia as an extra thickener. This mango chia seed pudding by dietitian Marisa Moore offers the best of both worlds."
"I love to lacto-ferment fruit (and veggies!), which creates a fermented food like sauerkraut but with the natural sweetness that comes from the fruit," Albina says. "You can make a salt-water brine or can use a packaged starter; you can also add or skip the sweetener—I skip it!"
Albina is also a big fan of chia pudding, but she opts out of the sweetener here too. "It's so simple to make," she says. "Blend a can of whole-fat coconut milk in the blender to make it creamy, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of chia seeds, and put it in the fridge so it gets a nice pudding consistency. I love stirring organic, fair-trade raw cacao in, and in the summer, I add some fresh berries. Such a delicious, nutritious, and filling meal or snack!"
And, of course, there's always the most obvious alternative option that many of us overlook: just using real fruit. "My favorite alternative to jam is simply to use fresh berries," Duggan says. "If you'd typically have a slice of toast with peanut butter and jam, consider using sliced strawberries/mashed raspberries on top instead. Enjoy the taste (provided the berries are local, organic, and in season and not imported from a million miles away in the middle of winter!), and be confident in the knowledge you're consuming phytonutrients, which will support your overall health, rather than pure sugar, which is also known as an anti-nutrient!"
The bottom line.
Store-bought jams are often loaded with sugar and lacking a lot of the nutrients you could pack into a homemade version. Choose a sweetener that fits your lifestyle, and pick a fruit that's high in natural pectin, so your jam turns out thick and delicious. A quick boil and cooling, and you'll have homemade jam in no time.
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Michelle Konstantinovsky is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and marketing specialist. She UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism alumna. She’s written extensively on health, body image, entertainment, lifestyle, design, and tech for outlets like Cosmopolitan, O: The Oprah Magazine, SF Weekly, and a many more.
She’s also a contributing editor at California Home Design.