Tiny jam: strawberry, rhubarb, lime & a touch of honey

What’s That in Your Pectin?

A mystic is someone who wants to understand the universe, but is too lazy to study physics.
~ Anonymous


I recently stumbled across that quote and thought, well, that’s true for me. I’m much more interested in soul than science, even though I ultimately don’t think it matters very much. It’s like the ouroboros — the snake eating its own tail. Somewhere in a vast darkness, science and mysticism probably join together in ways no one could possibly explain. Some of us travel one way, some another, but it all folds together, eventually.

The other thing I thought about when I read that quote was pectin. Honestly. Pectin has been on my mind because I’m contemplating the best ways to make jam without added sugar and my new diet says I can’t add pectin to them. I don’t often use added pectin, anyway, but I really don’t like losing my options. So I’ve had to think about it, and that hasn’t come naturally. I’d rather not study the science of pectin. I just want to understand whether or not I can use it and, if I do, I want it to work. Like magic, preferably. I suppose I’m a pectin mystic.

Both the SCD (Specific-Carbohydrate Diet) and GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet tell followers to stay away from added pectin. (The diets are very similar to one another and I’m incorporating elements of both into my new plan. Here’s a useful post on the blog Health, Home & Happiness explaining some of the similarities and differences between the two.) Both say that consuming the natural pectin in a piece of fruit is fine — provided we don’t sit down and eat a bushel of apples — so why are we supposed to stay away from added pectin in jams and jellies?

The many different kinds of pectin in my preserving cabinet

I found two reasons:

  1. These diets are, in part, about avoiding polysaccharides — that is, complex, hard-to-digest sugars — and that’s what pectin is. (I found this explanation of monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides, written for kids, to be very helpful.)
  2. Elaine Gottschall, who pioneered the SCD,  explained that “pectin is an indigestible soluble fiber which is normally not digested but which increases microbial (bacteria and yeast) growth when it reaches the lower part of the tract. It appears that the amount in fruit is not too much of a problem (although it may be the reason for gas after eating fruit). If you add pectin you are adding more nourishment for the yeast and bacteria we are trying to starve out.” (From SCDdiet.org.) The American Cancer Society confirms this in part, stating “Pectin in its natural form cannot be absorbed by the body and is considered a type of soluble dietary fiber.”  (But the ACS also goes on to say that there’s a kind of lab-modified pectin that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Below, there’s a bit of information about Sure Jell’s MCP, or “modified citrus pectin,” which has been altered in this way.)

Now, even if I accept both of these points, I have to ask another question: Is the digestive system going to get so bugged by, say, one teaspoon of naturally derived Pomona’s Pectin in an entire batch of jam — of which I will eat one occasional tablespoon at a time — that I have to lay off? The answer to that is surely going to depend on the individual gut. I plan to experiment to see what works for me.

Meanwhile, needing to avoid sugar and wanting to find the healthiest choices, I was seized by an impulse to view the ingredient lists for the different kinds of added pectin that most of us use. Here’s a summary:

Traditional Pectin

[amazon_link id=”B001EQ4DPC” target=”_blank” ]Sure Jell Regular[/amazon_link]: Dextrose, citric acid, fruit pectin.

[amazon_link id=”B001E50XBQ” target=”_blank” ]Sure Jell Low/No Sugar[/amazon_link]: Dextrose, fruit pectin, fumaric acid, sodium citrate .(Don’t you think it’s odd that a no-sugar pectin contains sugar? I do.)

Sure Jell MCP: Dextrose, fruit pectin, citric acid. (MCP stands for “modified citrus pectin.” As mentioned above, the American Cancer Society says that this is the form of pectin that has been altered so the digestive tract can more easily handle it. I wish it didn’t contain sugar! For some reason, you’ll only find Sure Jell MCP in stores on the West Coast or, sometimes, online. When I have used traditional pectin in the past, I’ve liked this one best because I found the set to be more natural.)

[amazon_link id=”B001E560U4″ target=”_blank” ]Certo Liquid[/amazon_link] (another Sure Jell product): Water, fruit pectin, lactic acid and citric acid, potassium citrate, sodium benzoate.

[amazon_link id=”B004U8R0NS” target=”_blank” ]Ball Flex Batch[/amazon_link]: Dextrose, fruit pectin, citric acid.

[amazon_link id=”B004U8R0QA” target=”_blank” ]Ball Flex Batch Low/No Sugar[/amazon_link]: Dextrose, fruit pectin, citric acid, calcium ascorbate. (Again with the sugar in the sugar-free pectin.)

Natural Pectin Sold Commercially

[amazon_link id=”B001IZICO2″ target=”_blank” ]Pomona’s Universal Pectin[/amazon_link]: Low-methoxyl citrus pectin and monocalcium phosphate. (Pomona’s pectin is for making preserves with low/no sugar. I looked up “monocalcium phosphate” and learned that it’s a food-grade rock mineral source of calcium that’s made up of calcium and phosphorus. It’s variously used as a yeast nutrient in baking, an acidulant, and a mineral supplement. An acidulant is an additive that increases tartness and helps with gelling. Speaking of gelling, I’ve used Pomona’s a lot and one thing that I have found — and I’ve heard this from others, too — is that the directions in the box often recommend more pectin than you need. Experimenting with reducing the amount has often resulted in a more satisfying, less rubbery set.)

Powdered Apple Pectin: Usually, what’s in powdered apple pectin is powdered apple pectin, and that’s all. You can find it by searching online or, perhaps, at your local health food store. I’ve never used it, but it was recently recommended to me by Tamika at Belle Jar Canning.

Homemade Pectin

Cooked Apple Pectin: This is pectin you make and process in a water-bath canner at home using just apples, or apples plus little bit of lemon juice. You can find written instructions at Pick Your Own. I also found  this video to be quite entertaining. It includes details for making your own pectin, including testing for pectin strength using the rubbing alcohol test. She also gives tips on how to use it.


Citrus Pectin: You can make citrus pectin from citrus peels and pith. It’s bitter, so you’d probably want to use it only in preserves where that would be complementary. What Julia Ate explains how to make it and shares some other tips about it.

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off?

After all this reading and thinking, the pectin question is still gnarly. I don’t think I’d balk — for digestive reasons — at the idea of adding Pomona’s or pure apple pectin to a preserve. (In fact, I’ll be sure to make a batch of homemade apple pectin when fall comes around.) If it turned out to be a problem, I’d stop.

But there’s still the significant issue of freshness: Preserves made without refined sugar just don’t keep as well in jars. They won’t kill you but, without sugar, the color and flavor go slack much sooner. For this reason, I’d be inclined to preserve no-added-sugar jams only in very small batches and to use what I’ve made within, say, six months. (I’ve posted a couple of sugar-free recipes like this in the past: cherry blueberry jam and pear lemon jam.)

This week's tiny jam: strawberry, rhubarb, lime & a touch of honey

What’s making most sense to me now is to make fruit spreads as I need them. I’ve started tinkering with recipes to make a perfect half-pint of jam without added sugar. I pop it into the fridge and eat it over the course of a couple of weeks. That’s what I did with the strawberry, rhubarb, lime & honey jam in the photo above. (Oh! And I almost forgot to say, the bread is grain-free and awesome.) I make sure to keep this jam in a jar that I really love — like a vintage wire-bail — because it feels like a special occasion every time I use it. So tell me, would you like recipes for tiny jams like these, or is that too easy for you? Also, if you have your own experiences with and feedback about pectin that you’d like to share, please go for it in the comments!

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  • Reply Pamsc March 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I’m not eating bread, so I personally don’t have much use for jam. But I just mixed calomondin spread into mashed sweet potatoes, and it was delicious! (Calomondins and 2 oz honey for about 12 oz finished product, cooked like a marmalade.) I would love no added sugar chutney to go with curries.

    • Reply Shae March 2, 2013 at 5:12 pm

      No-sugar chutney is a good idea! And I’m so glad you mentioned bread, because it made me realize I forgot to add a link to the recipe for the bread in the photo. It’s grain-free — made with cashew butter — and quite amazing. I’ve been making a loaf every week.

      I’m definitely going to try a citrus & honey mix. Thank you!

  • Reply Lindsay March 2, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Hi Shae,

    Sure, I’d love to see recipes with no-sugar added, even if it’s teeny tiny jars. I have lots of friends that follow similar dietary restrictions/cleansing/lifestyle choices that avoid all processed, refined and excess sugar.

    Sorry you’re having such health troubles. Hopefully a reprieve will help your digestive system get back on track and you’ll be feeling better real soon. I come from a long line of family with Celiac’s so tinkering with recipes, avoiding sugar and grains seems par for the course.

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 7:58 am

      True, Lindsay, it seems that more and more of us are having to become extra mindful of our diets to stay well. I am feeling a lot better already, thank you!

  • Reply Kate @ Snowflake Kitchen March 2, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    I abandoned commercial pectin completely last year and I don’t think I’ll ever go back – but I’ll add this to the list of reasons why.

    And HELL YES to using special jars. It really is the little things isn’t it?

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 7:59 am

      Oh, it is the little things! Thanks, Kate. :-)

  • Reply Angela March 2, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    I’ve always had an issue with the low/no sugar pectin people…its not sugar free. Its low or no sugar added pectin. I’ve never read the nutritional breakdown of how much dextrose carbs are in a serving or a box even, but I know its in there.

    I use commercial pectin in about half the recipes I make. Its often easier to follow the recipe as written than figure out how to rearrange it to come out without pectin. I use 99% flex batch as I got it on wicked clearance end of the season last year. So I bought 30 containers for about $10.

    I have a book that has micro batch recipes in it. Mainly intended for microwave cooking just enough. Although I’ve yet to try any, the idea is novel and perfect for someone who wants to make their own without “putting up” entire batches and consuming them.

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 8:00 am

      Thank you for this good input, Angela.

  • Reply Lisa Cardoza March 3, 2013 at 12:25 am

    I would love small batch recipes! I’m on GAPs and have pretty much given up my jamming. I find it nearly impossible to find anything with out sugar and without honey. According to Ayurvedic philosophy honey should never be heated under any circumstance. So sugar and honey are out for me! I find after being on GAPs for five months I really don’t miss sugar at all. As for honey I add it always at the end. Also experimenting with soaking dried fruit and pureeing that as a “sugar” substitute. So glad your doing some recipes that I can try out too! Keep it up!

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 8:03 am

      Hi Lisa: I’ve heard that about honey. I’ve been adding honey at the end of my tiny jam recipes, but I do heat it. In the absence of sugar, honey gives the jam a better texture. I don’t think I’m willing to give that up. :-/

      Pureed dried fruit is an interesting idea!

  • Reply Karen March 3, 2013 at 5:18 am

    I would love to see recipes for micro batch, no sugar, no pectin. I love the way fresh fruit tastes and will smush up strawberries to smear on toast in the morning.

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 8:03 am

      Yay. Thanks, Karen. The little strawberry-rhubarb-lime jam is pretty close to smushed fruit!

  • Reply Tamika March 3, 2013 at 8:07 am

    This is a wonderful run down on pectin! (I’m a soul and science person) The added sugar in ‘no-sugar’ plus other additives that are not naturally occurring in fruit (fumeric acid, sodium benzoate for example)are why I’ve stayed away from all but Pomona’s or powdered apple pectin, I prefer no added pectin at all.
    I would love to see your small batch, no sugar jam creations. I think they would be perfect glazes for roast veggies and squash too, I use orange marm as such.

    Thank you for the bread link. Now that I have to give up my (gluten free) sourdough buckwheat bread starter (and bread!) I’ve been looking for a replacement, this looks perfect. (Peter Reinhart’s new baking book is grain free and inspiring).

    Thanks for the mention!

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 8:06 am

      Thanks for all the feedback and great recommendations, Tamika! The bread recipe I linked to really is a good one. You beat and add the stiff egg whites separately, so it is not as dense as many grain-free breads. I like that about it. I will definitely check out the book you mention here, too.

  • Reply kaela March 3, 2013 at 11:30 am

    I’ve made apple and citrus pectin (Meyer lemon pectin is particularly nice, and not as bitter as other citrus types) and I have to say, I would never go back to commercial pectin. I never used much of it in the past, but now, if a jam seems to need a boost, I can just add a tablespoon of homemade pectin to nudge the set, instead of getting rock hard jelly & jam.

    As for no-added-sugar jams: I have found, in my experiments with honey & maple jams, that adding some booze (I know; you’re shocked) can help to replicate some of the preserving action of sugar (color, etc.). I’ve always found that it’s the texture sugar provides that I can’t get around, but I haven’t really experimented with using pectin to tweak texture vs. set.

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 8:10 am

      Always appreciate it when you share your considerable experience, Kaela. I’ll definitely keep the Meyer pectin in mind. You’d think I would have tried that already, considering the number of Meyers that have passed through my kitchen!) Also, that’s a good tip about the booze. I’m having to let go of the liqueurs I used to add — because of the sugar — but certain kinds (dry/clear) are still okay in small doses.

  • Reply Tamika March 5, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Doesn’t adding booze make everything better?!

    As one with a home based Preserves business in NYS, ag and mkt rules make me use sugar, so I have not experimented with honey or maple syrup. I use coconut palm nectar for my own personal use, I’m going to try it in jam soon too, but I think you’re right about not being able to replicate the smooth gel texture of sugar.

    • Reply Shae March 5, 2013 at 8:13 am

      Yup, I agree that the texture is the hardest thing to get over. And to think I used to refuse to use even organic sugar because I thought that compromised texture over the refined white stuff. That’s how attached I was to the sugar set! Oh, well.

      I’m going to check out this coconut palm nectar business, Tamika. :-)

  • Reply Heather C. March 6, 2013 at 6:25 am

    I think mini-jam recipes with no added sugar are a great idea- especially since you always do such great flavor combinations!

    • Reply Shae March 17, 2013 at 5:48 am

      Thanks for saying so, Heather!

  • Reply Cynthe Brush March 12, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Hi Shae ~ I’ve never used commercial pectin for the jams, jellies, and preserves I make. Use either citrus or apples in my recipes for their pectin content. Only downside is sometimes county fair judges think the results are not quite firm enough….but I disagree (natch).

    Cooking and draining apples for homemade pectin-rich juice works great! The flavor is fairly neutral, when combined with other fruits, w/o bitterness. In fact the pectin’s so concentrated, take care not to make rubber cement, when adding some to a batch of jam. Fortunately, rubbery preserves can be salvaged….but won’t be ‘as perfect’ as before, texture-wise.

    The apple juice pectin could be frozen in ice cube trays for longer storage. Once frozen, double wrap to protect against freezer burn. It keeps well.

    • Reply Shae March 17, 2013 at 5:46 am

      Thanks for your good input, Cynthe!

  • Reply Beth L March 12, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Hi Shae,
    I would love a recipe for small batches of no-sugar added jams! We’re trying to do a similar diet, especially no sugar or wheat. I tried the bread recipe you posted–really yummy, though I’m going to try to tweak it with less cashew butter and more coconut or almond flour so it tastes less like peanut butter cookies:) We’ve got eggs galore from the chickens again, so I love being able to use them in bread.

    • Reply Shae March 17, 2013 at 5:41 am

      Beth: I’ll work on those jamz! Did your bread really taste like peanut butter cookies? I don’t get a heavy, nutty flavor from that bread and I’m wondering why. I use hardly any honey, but maybe it has to do with the cashew butter itself? The one I use, which I get in bulk from the Good Earth here in Fairfax, has a very light taste. Or maybe it tastes more nutty than I realize, and I just like it that way! Now that I’ve made it so many times, I’m ready to branch out and try other, similar recipes. I’ll report back if I find others I like. Yay for the chickens!

  • Reply Links: Waffles, Parfaits, and Pickle-brined Chicken + a Blue Jar Winner - Food in Jars | Food in Jars March 17, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    […] Curious about pectin? Read Shae’s most thoughtful post on the subject. […]

  • Reply Gershon March 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Any update in small batch jam recipes? I’m on the SCD and would like a homemade recipe with the least “illegal” pectin.

    • Reply Shae March 29, 2017 at 9:56 am

      I’d recommend looking at Marisa McClellan’s most recent book, Naturally Sweet Food in Jars. She does quite a bit with honey in that book. When I was on the SCD, I made quite a few preserves with honey. Best of luck to you!

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