Food Additives. Why is Pectin in Jam? Citric acid? Why are some additives not listed?

2010 September 6
by welovejam

Under the current FDA and USDA food labeling laws, certain additives have to be listed and some not depending on what is deemed safe levels and what are known allergens. There is a wide spectrum from safe additives such as say pectin or citric acid in jam to additives that have mixed opinions on their safety such as Senomyx, which can get away with just being called and “artificial flavor.”

In the world of jam, pectin and citric acid are the primary additives. They are quite harmless but the question is what are they doing in my jam? Neither are used to flavor the jam, but are used like other substances in food to preserve or cause the food the have a certain texture.

A million years ago. Ok. Let’s back up. Maybe a few hundred years ago someone threw some fruit in a pot, some sugar and tried to make jam. It turned out as runny and thin as water.

What is the secret to thicken jam? Pectin!

The same goes for making gravy. You just roasted that Thanksgiving turkey (sorry all you vegetarians!) and got all these drippings. What do you reach for to thicken it? Well, flour or arrowroot powder.

Pectin does the same thing. Of course we don’t know. We never have touched the stuff.

In the world of jam, pectin is everywhere. It is the easy way to make anything thick as a jello mold. This explains why when you are in the supermarket all the jams are so thick you can shake the jar and nothing moves inside. It is frozen. It is as thick as set concrete. You gotta cut it with a knife. A jack hammer. Yuck.

We have never used pectin since we are purists and try to add as little to our products as necessary.

Pectin is derived from other fruits – primarily the skin of apples and pears. It is a naturally-occurring element in some fruits that can be extracted. Pectin can be made from scratch or you can buy it in the store in powder form. Essentially, pectin does the same as flour to sauce. It thickens it. It is basically the same as gelatin, but is not derived from animals.

Pectin usually requires sugar to create the proper chemical reaction to thicken whatever it is added to. Citric acid is also an important element for this ‘chemical magic’ to happen. This explains why you see one or both ingredients listed on commercial jam.

Well, over here at we shun added thickeners. Even those you can make yourself. Why?

Go buy a bag of pectin in the store and taste the powder. Is this something you would sprinkle on your fresh fruit before serving it to company? Didn’t think so. Or what about citiric acid (lemon juice generally) would you spritz it on your ice cream? What we are trying to say is everything, just about everything you add has a taste, contributes to a texture or reaction to other ingredients. In essence, it alters the fruit you are using to make your jam. So when you see a strawberry jam that contains citric acid, it really should be called Strawberry Lemon jam. And if you were to take the citric acid out of the strawberry jam it would taste more like strawberries and not as tart. The addition of pectin and citric acid to thicken jams requires the addition of more sugar to compensate. Seems silly to us.

So why do so many people make jam with pectin?

First off, we only make jam from fruit that has natural pectin in it. Some fruits do not, and will turn into a watery mess. Try making grape jelly or jam without pectin and you will see what we mean. Stone fruits, some berries and some citrus have high concentrations of pectin. These are fruits that can gel or thicken naturally.

To further complicate matters, fruits in different stages of ripeness have different concentrations of pectin. To master the art of jam, only time and experience will teach you what to do.

So why are jams that have natural amounts of pectin still have pectin added? A common reason pectin is used for jam is virtually all jam made commercially is from frozen fruit. Have you even frozen a bag of fruit and then thawed it? What happens? It turns into a disgusting watery mess. Pectin is the answer, It can solve so many problems. I am being ironic now. But in truth, commercial jam makers simply cannot make jam from fresh fruit since the time it will last in the refrigerator is limited to a few weeks. That means a big company like the brands you see nationwide in the supermarket cannot make global volume in a few weeks. To solve the problem they buy frozen fruit and can make it 12 months out of the year. The downside? Have you ever tasted supermarket jam compared to home made jam from fresh fruit?

When you freeze fruit, whether it be a slow freeze like you do in your home freezer, or a commercially fast freeze like they do so you can get your organic blueberries in December in the frozen fruit section of the supermarket, the fruit when it thaws is dramatically different than fresh fruit. On the molecular level, all fruit when frozen causes the cells of the fruit explode. Water expands when you freeze it. So when you freeze fruit, the water in the cells expands and breaks the walls of the cells. What was once a coherent structure, say a blueberry that was once nice and firm, after freezing it and then thawing it, becomes soft. There are some flash freeze techniques called IQF that don’t cause as much damage to fruit, but still, freezing anything causes a change in flavor and texture.

This molecular murder wrecks havoc on flavor as well. While some things like bread and leftovers can be frozen and thawed, they had the advantage of already being cooked, and having their molecular structure changed. When you deal with fresh fruit, once it is tampered with, either by freezing or cooking, it has been altered. The more you tinker with it the more the flavor changes. So using frozen fruit and than heating it to make jam, has twice removed it from its natural state.

Now we don’t want to give the frozen fruit business a bad rap. All over the world, frozen fruit is critical to supplying people healthy fruit they normally could not get fresh. It also is a huge advantage to farmers who sometimes cannot sell all their fresh fruit, and don’t want to deal with the short period of time fruit can remain in refrigeration. One of the industries that most benefits from freezing is cherry growers.

Cherries we all know have pits and on a commercial scale once you pit a cherry it has a very short time it can stay refrigerated. Freezing freshly pitted cherries is a terrific solution. Yes, they do get softer, especially the high sugar varieties like bing and ranier, but tarter cherries, that are IQF and that are used for pie fillings or even added to jam survive much better. First off they are extremely tart and people do not eat them by themselves (or few do), and due to their very strong flavor, the freezing doesn’t dilute the flavor as much as more delicate fruits like peaches, berries and apricots.

But back to pectin. It is perfectly OK for big companies to use pectin for the reasons explained. They really have no choice if they want to make a product year round and at an affordable cost. On the flip side, a jam made from fresh fruit without the addition of pectin or citric acid is more of an art form and thus more expensive to make and purchase.

Shoppers should be educated on what they buy and the ingredients in their foods. There is a long resistance by large food companies to reveal the finer details of how their products are made and the trace ingredients since customers might not buy their products if they knew these details.

For example, the wine you buy has an extraordinary amount of ingredients in trace amounts not on the label. Normally you think wine is just fermented grape juice, but in fact most commercially made wine has many things in it that are not required to be listed on the label.
wine additives

The same can be said for food. The FDA and USDA has a cutoff limit whereby certain trace chemicals and such if they are below a certain percentage, do not have to be listed on the ingredients list of food since they are deemed safe in this low concentration. Think about the orange juice you buy from fruit that has been sprayed with pesticides or contain trace amounts of fertilizers. Are these ever mentioned on food labels? Of course not. The food and chemical industry has fought hard to prevent this from becoming public knowledge. But it makes perfect sense fruit grown with fertilizers and pesticides simply has to have some trace amounts in them. As consumers, don’t we have the right to know?

Of course many people choose organic for these very reasons. Organic produce generally has about 1/3 less pesticide and fertilizer residue than commercially grown. But even with organic there are problems. Most pesticides allowed within the organic community are heavy metals, such as copper sulfate. This can leech into the soil and into the fruit. Who is to say there are no adverse affects from this? A completely truthful labeling standard would list trace chemicals that are or could be in the food you eat. Ever look at the ingredients of a multivitamin? Even the smallest trace of things are listed. Vitamins are perhaps the most accurate product in terms of food labeling laws. But then you could take it even further. Why not list all the traces of pesticides etc. in the vitamins? If you were going to be that truthful, that means the organic pear juice you buy would have an ingredient list like:

Ingredients: organic pears, organic apple juice from concentrate and organic sugar.
Trace elements: copper sulfate, nicotine sulfate, rotenone.

One of the obstacles to extremely accurate food labeling isn’t just resistance from big companies that want to hide these things, it is also the difficulty in accurately reporting all these trace elements. First off, that would require each food ingredient to undergo extensive lab tests to measure these chemicals which alone could turn up a dizzying array of information. Then there has to be some sort of cut off point, whereby any substance below some tiny amount does not have to be reported. Finally, making room on food packaging for all this additional information is also a problem.

Another law few people know about is that small companies are exempt from listing the nutritional information on their products. We fall into that category. Food manufacturers who make less than 500,000 units of any particular product do not have to include nutritional information since the cost for lab work is expensive and most small companies cannot afford it.

So you see this is a very complex issue, but we figured it would be nice to at least raise the subject in reference to the gray areas of additives that have mixed scientific opinion on safety. These should be listed after a certain concentration in food is agreed on. Also, additives that have some people concerned about their safety such as Senomyx, should be listed on products and not hidden in ingredients as “artificial flavor.”

Here are some links about food and personal care additives that are not listed on food labels:
The European Crop Protection Association
About Organic Produce
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Organic Farming
Hidden Chemicals in Perfume and Cologne
Senomyx: New additive not listed on ingredients
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Hidden Food Additive “Inulin” May Cause Stomach Ache
The Truth in Food Labeling – Food Additives to Avoid & Hidden Sources of MSG
Hidden Phosphorus Food Additives

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