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Jam's sticky situation: How much sugar is too much?

Summer berry jam

Making jam with summer fruits is a very British past-time. Laden with sugar, it is one of the sweetest spreads around. So should we mess with its consistency?

How do you eat your jam? On toast, a scone, or in a Victorian sponge? Would you love it just as much if it was too sloppy to stay on top?

Blackberries are already popping up on hedgerows, and plums, apples and damsons are due to adorn trees and shop shelves in the next few weeks.

The fruity riches of late summer have jam makers poised with jars at the ready, with industry experts forecasting a surge in people making their own.

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But what some hobbyists might not realise is their concoctions can only truly be called "jam" if the end product contains a minimum of 60% sugar, or more.

Picture the bouncy, thick texture of jam. The characteristic "gel" of the mixture is formed when a high amount of sugar is combined with acid and the gelling agent called pectin that is released from fruit as it boils.

The 60% rule, which is the British industry standard, was cooked up in the 1920s by scientists at the University of Bristol. It is there mainly for the sugar to act as a preservative in jams and marmalades, giving them a shelf-life of at least a year.

Any less sugar and you are in the realms of "reduced sugar" jams, compotes or fruit spreads.

Sixty percent may sound like a lot of the sweet stuff. However in the jam industry it is this high minimum percentage that makes British jams different from many other European preserves.

But the consistency of traditional English jams could be about to change.

'Historical precedent'

Earlier this year Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) proposed to lower the minimum amount of sugar allowed in the traditional preserve to 50 or 55%. The change would bring English jams more in line with the sugar amounts used in French and German jams.

The move has stirred debate among producers awaiting the results, which could be announced in October.

Sugar being added to jam A high amount of sugar is needed to preserve and set jam

Jam and marmalade producer and author Vivien Lloyd believes that lowering the amount of sugar in jam could over time destroy the characteristic qualities of English jams that consumers have come to expect.

"Something which has a historical precedent is being swept away and disregarded," she argues.

"If you reduce the [sugar] percentage you will not get the characteristic gel," she says, adding that the jam would also have to be boiled for longer for it to "set".

"The longer you boil, the flavour of the jam goes. And also you will have a very dark-coloured product at the end.

"If you start introducing other preservatives, that affects the fruit flavour."

The health benefits of using less sugar are obvious, so shouldn't jam-makers rejoice?

Michelle McKenna of Clippy's apple preserves argues it's time for a change. "I'm using British apples to reduce sugar content because the Bramley apple is full of pectin and has a lovely sweetness when it cooks down anyway," she says.

Currently the company's lower-sugar preserves cannot be called "jam" because they only contain about 52% sugar. But Ms McKenna has been making the news as the driving force behind Defra's decision to reconsider the rules.

"I can't change my product to add more sugar because then it won't taste the same; it won't have the same application."

Know your preserves

Seville orange marmalade

Preserves: An umbrella term for jams and other spreads

Jams, jellies and marmalades: In England, these currently must contain a minimum "soluble solids" level of 60%. Labels must describe the quantity of fruit and sugar in the product

Conserves: Made with whole fruit that has been steeped in sugar before cooking, similar to a jam but often with a slightly softer set

Reduced sugar jams: Contain between 25-50% sugar. Set with pectin or gelling agents and some artificial preservatives

Fruit spread: A thinner preserve without added sugar

Many traditional jam recipes require equal amounts sugar and fruit (the total amount of sugar is boosted up to around 60-65% by the fruit itself).

So a teaspoon of jam contains around 6.5g total sugar and 3.5g fruit.

It's a high proportion of sugar, and "there's a bit of a health argument there," concedes Vivien Lloyd.

She says: "My reply to that is, you wouldn't sit down at one meal and eat a whole jar of jam."

But do stringent sugar measurements apply when if you're jam-making at home? If it doesn't need to keep as long, is it possible to concoct real jam but with less sugar?

White granulated sugar - or sucrose - is the standard in most jam recipes, but it is possible to use honey instead, or concentrated grape or apple juice which is sweet when boiled down.

The end product, though, is likely to end up more pasty in texture than traditionally-made jam.

Founder of the Anarchy in a Jar website Laena McCarthy is an American preserver.

She says she encourages her students to use a kind of "low-methoxyl" pectin sold commercially, which is a made of natural powdered citrus peel. This type of pectin doesn't require sugar to create a gel, "so you can control the amount you add".

Some non-traditionalists encourage a bit of rule-breaking in the kitchen, in pursuit of flavour.

Ripening blackberries Blackberries are ripe for picking from late August to September

"Try and find a recipe by a reliable person if you don't have the confidence to do it yourself," says jam-maker and writer Gloria Nicol.

"But be aware that the classic Women's Institute approach is, you know, quite a lot of sugar in order to get a really good set on the jam.

"I think that you can accept a slightly softer set to the jam if the flavour is going to be better."

Laena McCarthy advises the home cook to "be adventurous... taste as you cook and add sugar conservatively".

Known for her unconventional flavour pairings such as strawberry balsamic jam, or grapefruit and smoked salt marmalade, Ms McCarthy suggests: "Add your favourite spice [or] fresh herb. I like adding strong, unexpected ones like lemon verbena or tarragon."

Gloria Nicol thinks some jams are just too sweet.

Jammy dodgers:

Juicing oranges

"Once you go over a certain amount of sweetening the sugar sort of starts to dominate."

She suggests bringing out the "optimum" flavour of the fruit by extracting the natural juices through slow-cooking without water. Then add the sugar.

"You can generally afford to cut down on the sugar," she says. "To a kilo of fruit I would probably add about 750 grams of sugar, not the standard kilo."

But fans of thick-set English jam be warned: less sugar means a softer texture.

The set can sometimes be improved by adding lemon or extracting your own pectin from apples to add to the jammy mix, explains Ms Nicol.

"You can mix another high pectin fruit with a low pectin fruit to help boost its pectin content.

"But ultimately there'll be a point at which if there isn't enough sugar you won't get a set."

So what is the result of all this experimentation? Are you still left with a mixture you can really serve up as "jam"?

Vivien Lloyd's raspberry jam The firm texture of British jams sets them apart from many European versions

"Well, if it's in your home you can call it whatever you like," says Ms Nicol.

"And jam is such a lovely word it's a shame not to use it."

Now seems to be the time to take up jam-making as a wholesome hobby.

The activity is seeing a renaissance, says Rosemary Jameson from the Guild of Jam and Preserve Makers, who has noticed an upsurge in interest in jam-making classes, particularly among young people.

And this late summer season hopes are high for good crops of orchard and hedgerow fruits.

"The apples and plums and so on I think are going to be great," says Ms Jameson.

"There'll be lots of blackberries, looking at the hedgerows."

"Masses of elderberries… they've turned into lovely berries and they're all ripening now."

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