What’s in canned cranberry sauce anyway?

What’s in canned cranberry sauce anyway?

It wouldn’t be a true American Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce, evidenced by the 5,062,500 gallons consumed last holiday season.

Some prefer to make their own red spread over the stovetop, but for others, it’s just as traditional to scoop that canned cranberry sauce onto a plate, and slice into neat pieces.

Also known as ‘jellied’ cranberry sauce – coined by cranberry colossus Ocean Spray – it’s been a household staple in America since 1941. And while it was created to extend the shelf life of berries, canned cranberry sauce is consumed most during fresh cranberry season.

So, what’s inside canned cranberry sauce that keeps consumers from making their own homemade version? Considering homemade sauce looks more like pie filling than the Jello-like consistency of the canned version, there’s clearly something more to the can than fruit.

Let’s take a look at the aforementioned Ocean Spray, the most popular cranberry sauce brand. Their jellied sauce is comprised of cranberries, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and water. Woodstock Farms makes a similar product, containing organic cranberries, organic sugar, filtered water, and organic lemon juice concentrate. Interestingly, neither cranberry mogul uses gelatin, which may have been a likely culprit to the shape-holding can sauce.


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That wiggly nature of the sauce is actually…natural. It’s pectin, a gelling agent that organically occurs in fruit. It’s even extracted from fruit and sold independently, for use in jams and jellies. It’s also a well-used vegan and vegetarian cooking companion, used to thicken sauces, soups, and puddings.

When cranberries, sugar, and water boil together, the berries release their pectin. The berries are further mashed to extract all juice and pectin, then strained for consistency. When it’s poured into cans, the can acts as a mold, and when the mixture cools, the pectin solidifies it into a mostly solid state. The pectin content is so high, that the cranberry sauce will hold the can’s shape, even when it’s removed onto a plate.

In comparison, homemade cranberry sauce is more, well, saucy, and less like a tube of Jello. This is because homemade variants usually call for more liquid than the mass-produced version. The pectin will thicken the sauce a tad, but the end result is always looser and liquidy.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Photo Credit: tjp55/Shutterstock; Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

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