Low Sugar Preserving For The Jam Lover

I love homemade jam. When we were kids, my brother and I used to stand outside next to the garage with steak knives, whacking the leaves off of rhubarb stems (in hindsight, this probably wasn’t terribly safe). Ever since then, I have delighted in standing over the pot, watching berries or peaches or rhubarb become a delectable condiment…with the assistance of a LOT of sugar. The sugar never bothered me then, and it usually doesn’t bother me now. But, as I’ve gotten older and my taste buds have shifted, I’ve definitely been using less of it. 


To compound the issue, I recently began a Master’s degree in Nutrition. One of my core beliefs, which is supported by the American Dietetic Association, is that there is room for all types of food in a healthy diet—in moderation. Moderation obviously means different things to different people, but to me it means that I generally make my jam the old fashioned way—just fruit and a lot of sugar, with maybe a little lemon thrown in to achieve the desired acidity. 


I love giving homemade canned goods as holiday gifts, and a family friend’s diagnosis with Type II diabetes recently caused me to rethink my jam-making strategy. Lucky for her, diabetes management is not what it used to be. Most diabetics can now find room in their diets for a sweet item every now and then. Strict avoidance of all sugar has given way to careful carb counting and use of the Glycemic Index to predict shifts in blood glucose levels.


But what about all that sugar in my homemade jam? Is it really necessary? The fact that it’s delicious is without question, at least in my mind. I generally find the flavor of fruit to be sweet enough, though, and I enjoy alternative sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup. Additionally, there are lots of other ways to preserve fruit: in syrup, as fruit butter, in a sauce, or as a flavoring for a liqueur. 


This topic is incredibly current, and I had no trouble finding plenty of resources to answer all of my fruit preservation questions. Here are some ideas for sugar-free and low-sugar ways to preserve your favorite seasonal fruits:


  • Low- or no-sugar preserves: Pomona’s Universal Pectin is activated with calcium, unlike traditional pectin, which is activated with sugar and acid. It’s available at most health-food stores and online, and comes with a group of great recipes that require no added sugar.
  • Preserving fruit in a liquid: Fruit can be preserved in liquid without using any sweetener at all. You can use water, fruit juice, or alcohol, and process jars in boiling water bath just as you would with a thick, sugary syrup. There are detailed directions for how to do this in the Ball Blue Book, as well as here.
  • Conserves, butters, and sauces: Both the Ball Blue Book and the Ball Complete Guide to Home Preserving include low-sugar and sugar-free recipes. They’re definitely not the majority, but they’re there. These recipes often use sweet substitutes such as canned pineapple or dried apples to create the desired flavors. Liana Krissoff’s book Canning for a New Generation includes some very creative recipes, as does Norma MacRae’s book Canning and Preserving without Sugar. The latter is no longer in print, but you can find it online.


Here’s a recipe I used to preserve a pile of apples I picked at Havlicek’s Orchard in Veseli, MN. It’s adapted from another great book on preserving, The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and other Sweet Preserves, by Linda Ziedrich.


Low-Sugar Apple Butter

3 quarts fresh apple cider

5 pounds unpeeled apples, quartered

1 cup dark or light brown sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon allspice


  • In a large, non-reactive pan, boil the apple cider for about 20 minutes, or until it has reduced by about ¼. 
  • Add the apples, cover the pan, and simmer until the apples are soft, stirring occasionally. This should take 30 to 45 minutes.
  • Puree the mixture. You can do this in your food processor or blender, or by putting it through a food mill. I’m lazy, and I used an immersion blender.
  • Put everything back in the pan and add the last ingredients. The spices are up to you. If there’s something else you like, go ahead and add it!
  • Cook the mixture uncovered, over low heat, until it is thick, dark, and glossy. This will take an hour or two. You’ll have to stir it more often as it gets thicker.
  • Ladle the apple butter into hot, sterilized jars (pints or half-pints). Add lids and rings and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. 
  • Store the jars in the fridge once you’ve opened them.


Aimee Tritt is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. She is a CSA subscriber, yoga practitioner, canning enthusiast, and a wizard in the kitchen. She enjoys sharing her love of food and cooking with others, and volunteers for the Youth Farm and Market Project in Minneapolis, teaching middle school children basic cooking and gardening skills.