Some commercial jams state on the label that they contain "no preservatives", or are "preservative free". As I understand it, jam is a type of fruit preserve. Like most fruit preserves, it is protected against bacteria and mould before opening by the canning effect, and protected to a lesser extent against bacteria once opened, by its high sugar content (typically > 50% by weight).

Jams that I have seen labelled in this way also usually list citric acid as an ingredient, which commonly used as a food preservative.

My assumption is that food companies can get away with this labeling because sugar is required to activate the pectin during manufacturing, and citric acid can be said to be required for flavouring purposes.

My argument is that although jam wouldn't be jam without the gelling effect of the activated pectin, it also wouldn't be jam if it wasn't self-preserved after opening. It seems wrong to claim that sugar is not a preservative when used in jam, just because it has another function. It would be like claiming that full-cream milk is "fat-free" because the fat it does contain is required to make it appear white instead of having a blue tinge.

If another edible chemical that could activate pectin (but didn't have a preserving effect) was used to make jam, then would a manufacturer not get away with labeling the jam as having no preservatives, if sugar was added solely for the purpose of preservation?

I have not mentioned taste as a another function of sugar in jam because I don't think it is a relevant fact to consider. Jam tastes sweet because it is made with sugar for the reasons stated above, not because sugar is added to make it taste like jam.

Is "no preservatives" in jam a legitimate claim, or a marketing trick?

I have not researched the types of preservatives that are added to commercial jams that do not display the "no preservatives" claim, but I would be interested in this information if anybody knows.

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    Hi, just a quick question for clarification. I have had a very quick scan in the fridge, and only one jam I have has a label with this type of claim, however the wording on my jar is 'no artificial preservatives' which would be correct. Do you have a picture, or could you say if the jam you are talking about is a specific brand? Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 9:34
  • Thanks for having a look. The jam I have definitely says "no preservatives", without the "artificial" modifier. As it turns out, this doesn't actually make any difference to the meaning of the statement in the context of the food industry. For interest's sake, the jam I have is "Barker's of Geraldine", which is a New Zealand brand.
    – Ramius
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 18:13
  • I'll not add an answer, but the barkers jams are produced in a vacuum boiler (not the precise term) this combined with the sugar would give a product that did not need additional preservatives, artificial or not. I hope you got your answer from the ones submitted Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 20:42
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    @MartinJevon I think the point that the OP is making is that the sugar in jam is a preservative to stop the fruit from spoiling. Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 3:03
  • Thank you all for clearing up my confusion with some great answers and comments. I see now that what I had in my head as a definition of a preservative, differs from what most people find useful and that which food industry regulatory authorities have defined.
    – Ramius
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 6:40

3 Answers 3


From the FDA site: "The term 'chemical preservative' as defined by 2l CFR 101.22(a)(5), 'means any chemical that, when added to food tends to prevent or retard deterioration thereof, but does not include common salt, sugars, vinegars, spices or oils extracted from spices, substances added to food by direct exposure thereof to wood smoke, or chemicals applied for their insecticidal or herbicidal properties'.'

So that seems pretty straightforward. Legally, they don't have to claim sugars or acids as preservatives.

  • Thanks, this answers my question most precisely. Presumably, other countries would use similar definitions for their food industries.
    – Ramius
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 18:06

It's fairly obvious that they mean no 'artificial' or 'added' preservatives, considering that's what people usually get their undergarments in an entanglement about.

Sodium benzoate (E211) is the most commonly used 'artificial' preservative used in jams because it prevents bacteria and fungus growing when it's used in acidic conditions. I use quotation marks around artificial because sodium benzoate is a naturally occurring substance that you find in numerous things, from apples to cinnamon.

  • You are correct. I hadn't considered this angle. Thanks for the sodium benzoate info.
    – Ramius
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 18:08
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    And dark fruit... plums, lingonberries ... are practically not available preservative-free from nature herself :) Commented Jan 13, 2016 at 15:53

I don't see any problem here.

One possibility is that there could be a legally prescribed definition of preservatives. I don't know if this is the case, and if this is, how much difference there is between jurisdictions. But, if there is a list of food additives considered preservatives by law, I'm pretty sure sugar won't be on it. And any company which put something from the list in their product and labelled it "no preservatives" won't survive after somebody from the competition has thrown a look at the label.

The other possibility is that there is no such list. In this case, there is no binding definition of "preservative", and it becomes a matter of interpretation. As you already describe in your own question body, there is certainly an interpretation of "preservative" which excludes sugar - it is an ingredient which has no nutritional value but is added to food stuffs for the sole purpose of preserving it. This is also the most common interpretation, and the one consumers care about.

So in this second case, there is no right or wrong way to label it, both are factually correct. But one is going to lead to a lot of misunderstanding, and communicates information the consumer doesn't need. It is no wonder that the producer has chosen the other interpretation and labels according to it.

  • Good points, especially on the competitive motivation.
    – Ramius
    Commented Jul 21, 2014 at 18:10

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