Long after fruit has been plucked from the vine, you can still savor its essence in a jam, preserve or jelly. All-natural and organic jams are as close as you can get to that just-off-the-vine flavor, with plenty of real fruit loaded into the jar. Typically, all-natural jams don't use artificial preservatives or thickeners, leaving more of the authentic fruit flavor.
Jam, preserves and conserves are all made by boiling fruit and leaving in small chunks. Jelly, on the other hand, is made from fruit juice, and so has no fruit chunks in it. Marmalade is a preserve made of the pulp and rind of fruits and is typically, but not always, made from citrus. "These definitions aren't cut and dry," says Greg Hoffman, vice president of sales at St. Dalfour, a French manufacturer of all-natural preserves. "There's significant overlap in the definition of conserves, preserves and jam, and in many cases the terms are used interchangeably."
Heather Liggett, director of marketing at High Desert Foods, a Dolores, Colo.-based manufacturer of organic preserves, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's guidelines mandate that a product labeled as a jam, jelly or preserve must contain a minimum of 55 percent sugar. "It's hard to know for certain the origin of these regulations, but they may have evolved from historical methods of food preservation in which sugar was used to prevent foods from degrading," Liggett says. "Curiously, though, neither the jam industry nor federal regulators have pressed for this outdated law to be updated to conform to our current understanding that having more sugar than fruit in preserves and jams isn't necessary for the product to be safe to eat year-round."
Liggett says that of the two main ingredients in preserves and jams—fruit and sugar—sugar is by far the cheaper. "With large amounts of sugar, you can take poor-quality fruit and make it taste sweet, creating the illusion of how the fruit might taste if you were eating it fresh," Liggett says. "Nontraditional, organic jarred fruit manufacturers, like ourselves, who make products with less than the 'required' amount of sugar have gotten around this regulation by calling our product something other than jam, jelly or preserve. We started calling our products conserves but changed the name to confiture recently."
All-natural jams: good for the planet
Hoffman says that when a jam is given the all-natural designation, it usually means that nothing artificial has been added to extend shelf life, change the color or thicken the final product. "Since pectin is a natural substance derived from fruit itself, its use in thickening jams does not affect the all-natural status."
Although the number of all-natural jams is increasing, organic jams are still a much smaller category. Thomas May, western regional sales manager at Katonah, N.Y.-based Global Organic Brands, manufacturer of Mediterranean Organic fruit preserves, says that part of the difficulty with creating an organic jam is sourcing the fruit. "[It] comes down to supply," May says. "Two examples are strawberry preserves and orange marmalade. Both are produce crops that are very common, but it's not necessarily the case that you'll find enough consistent organic crops year after year or be able to assemble all the organic ingredients you need to put the jams together." He cautions that that the fruit used to make strawberry preserves—one of the most common preserves eaten by Americans—is also one of the most heavily sprayed. "It's especially important that people try to make sure that when buying strawberries, they always buy organic, because of the extensive pesticide issues," May says.
How close, in terms of nutrition, is jam to the fresh fruit that it's derived from? "I don't know if anyone reaches for a jam or jelly because they're inherently good for you," May says. "But the biggest health consideration for any jam is how much refined sugar you're ingesting. The sweeteners in conventional products are pretty nasty, but products like ours use an organic sugar."
"I think jam can be good for you as long as it's part of a balanced diet, and preferably when it's made from organic, tree-ripened fruit as the primary ingredient, with the smallest possible amount of organic sugar added," says Liggett. "Organic preserves are especially good for parents wishing to reduce the toxic burden on their children, while still being able to cater to their finicky tastes."
Anne Evanoff, grocery category manager at Wild Oats, says that sales in the jam category had dropped off steeply during the low-carb craze but have now rebounded with equal strength. Evanoff says that from 2004 to 2005, jam sales grew 15 percent in the national natural channel, and Wild Oats' jam sales grew by 7 percent, according to data from SPINS, a San Francisco-based market research company in the natural products industry.
Evanoff said consistent best-selling flavors at Wild Oats are strawberry and raspberry, and big sizes in popular flavors seem to sell especially well. "The organics are doing really well," says Evanoff. "Sales on those are outselling naturals, which is a relatively new trend for us."
Evanoff recommends that retailers who are looking to evaluate new jams, jellies or preserves try a taste test. "I did a tasting not too long ago where I set up four comparable strawberry jams side by side," Evanoff explains. "It was a real revelation, and I was very surprised to find that the ones with organic sugar were some of the best-tasting. But some customers still will want an all-fruit jam, while others are looking for something more gourmet in taste and may appreciate the flavor of the organic sugar in jams." Evanoff also recommends that retailers seek out local or regional jams and preserves. "I always try to bring in regional jams and jellies that you don't tend to find in national chains, bringing more of a local flavor to the product."
Lynn Ginsburg is the author of What Are You Hungry For? Women, Food and Spirituality (St. Martin's Press, 2003).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 88, 90