In theory, opting for a fruit-based condiment should reward you with some sort of automatic healthy eating award. In reality, most of the jams, jellies, and other fruity toppers we slather on our morning toast aren’t exactly doing us a lot of favors in the nutrition department.
According to nutrition consultant and natural chef Karyn Forsyth Duggan, M.S., BBS, the big problem with store-bought jam can be summed up in one word: “Sugar!” she says. “Popular brands of jam can have more than 3 teaspoons of sugar per tablespoon of jam. That may not seem like much, but if you consume about 2 tablespoons of jam on something that’s already a little sweet such as a freshly baked scone or a popular brand of bread, which could contain up to 5 grams of sugar per slice, it all starts to add up quite quickly. Without realizing it, you may have inadvertently consumed something close to the equivalent (in terms of sugar content) of a soda!”
It’s important to note, of course, that partaking in sugar from time to time, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sabotaging your overall well-being. “Jams contain natural and added sugar, but that doesn’t make them ‘unhealthy,'” says Kris Sollid, R.D., senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council. “Whether you purchase jam from a store, farmers market, or make it at home, sugar is added to jam out of necessity—to act as a natural preservative and also to form the proper consistency of gel. Any food’s contribution to health (positive or negative) depends on how much of it you eat and what else your diet consists of. That said, some jams are higher in added sugars than others. If you’re looking to reduce the amount of added sugar you consume from jam, compare Nutrition Facts labels while you shop, and choose varieties that are lower in added sugars.”
About those labels: Duggan says newer jam brands are doing a bit better in terms of moderating their sugar content and says because nutrition labels were updated in July 2018, there is more of a spotlight on the added sugars in products, but “manufacturers are not obliged to provide any information to enable understanding of how much sugar is in their products; i.e., most people don’t know how to interpret a gram!” Duggan does offer one simple rule of thumb for analyzing labels in the absence of manufacturer-provided guidance: “Divide the total grams of sugar by 4,” she says. “That provides you with a visual of the number of teaspoons. So, for example, if there are 8 grams of sugars in your jam of choice, you now know that equates to 2 teaspoons of sugar.”
But if you think reduced- or low-sugar jams are a safer bet, be careful. “The No. 1 thing to watch out for with store-bought jam is added sugar (be that cane sugar, corn syrup, etc.),” says registered dietitian and integrative nutrition health coach, Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN, INHC. “Artificial sweeteners can also be problematic, as they may condition you to expect higher levels of sweetness, making it harder to be satisfied with naturally sweet foods.”
Another thing about store-bought jams to consider is that their eye-catching labels may suggest they contain ingredients they don’t—like, for instance, fruit. “Many store-bought jams and jellies contain no real fruit,” says sports dietitian Kelly Jones, M.S., R.D., CSSD. “Often, those that do have very little fruit and are rather made of various refined or ultra-processed sugars as well as artificial colors and flavors. While reaching for a product like this once in a blue moon won’t make or break your health, if it’s something you enjoy regularly throughout the week, you may want to reconsider your purchase or consider making your own.”
“Often, food companies add unhealthy ingredients to jams such as high-fructose corn syrup and/or corn syrup to add sugar to the recipe,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Leah Silberman, RDN. “Labels that claim their products are ‘natural’ do not always mean they don’t contain added sugars.”