It happens to all of us at some point in our canning careers. You go to retrieve a jar of precious, brightly colored jam, only to discover that the once vibrant color has gone muddy and dull. Once you get over the disappointment, you start to wonder two things. What happened to cause the loss in color and is that jar of jam (or pickles, jelly, fruit butter, relish, fruit halves or tomatoes) still safe to eat?
There are a number of reasons why a preserve has lost its color. Let’s dig in.
Weather Conditions During Growing – The opportunity for discoloration starts while the fruit is still on the tree. Fruit that’s grown during really hot, dry summers has a tendency to turn pink once in the jars. If you experience this kind of discoloration, worry not. While it can’t be avoided, it won’t impact the flavor, texture or safety.
Picking and Storage – Produce starts to break down as soon as it comes off the tree, plant or bush. Heat and extended storage can lead to faded color. However, as long as the fruits and vegetables were still in edible shape when it went into the jar, the product is still safe to eat.
Oxidation – This one is the bane of all canners. As soon as you start cutting up fruit and exposing the flesh to air, it starts to brown. During prep, you can stave off oxidation by submerging the fruit in acidified water (a couple tablespoons of bottled lemon juice in a bowl will do the job). But even when you think you’ve done everything right, you sometimes have some browning on the surface of the finished jam (peach, nectarine, and apricot are particularly prone to this) or, in the case of whole fruit, anything peeking up out of the syrup may discolor. Still safe, though some people prefer to scrape the browned layer away.
Light Exposure – Anytime something with color is exposed to ultraviolet light, it will fade. The reason is that those UV rays weaken the chemical bonds of the color particles over time, causing them to break down. We experience this as color loss. Light-faded products are still safe to eat, but they may not be as delicious as they originally were.
Reduced Sugar – Sugar helps maintain color because it absorbs water and acts as a buffer. The more you reduce sugar in a preserve, the more prone to color loss that product will be.
Exposure to Reactive Metals – Reactive metals like copper, aluminum, and cast iron can leach small amounts of metal into your preserve during cooking, which can lead to darkening and a bonus metallic flavor (yum!). It’s best to keep highly acidic foods out of cookware made with these metals (the exception is high sugar preserves cooked in copper. The sugar prevents the metallic leaching). These preserves aren’t unsafe, but they don’t always taste good.
Use of Salt with Additives – This applies primarily to pickles, but it’s a good one to know. The reason recipes typically call for pickling salt is not just because it dissolves quickly. It’s also free of iodine and anti-caking agents, both of which can cause pickles to yellow or darken.
The basic takeaway here is that most forms of mild fading or browning don’t impact the safety of your finished product. As long as the seal is good, the preserve don’t have any mold growing on the sugar, and it doesn’t bubble when you open the jar, it’s really okay (just to be clear, we’re talking about high acid preserves here). For best quality, keep your canned goods out of direct light and in a place between 50 and 70 degrees F.