Maple Syrup: Why the Real Stuff Makes All the Difference

Real maple syrup is worth the extra expense. Here's why and what to look for.

Real maple syrup tastes great on pancakes, of course, but it has so many other delicious uses, too. Magdalena Kucova/Shutterstock

The sap of the sugar maple tree is one of the most delicious natural sweeteners in the world, though it seems that not many people outside the northeastern United States and Canada appreciate its unique flavor and health benefits.

Whenever I’ve traveled outside New England—even as close as New York City—I’m often given fake syrup (that’s what I call it) for pancakes, waffles, and French toast. Thanks, but I’d rather have some fruit, because that fake stuff is usually made with maple "flavor" (whatever that is) and high fructose corn syrup, which is not a healthy breakfast ingredient, though it is cheap.

These "pancake syrups", as they're called, use corn or other sugar syrup as a sticky base with added color and flavor to make it resemble maple syrup. It's much thicker than real syrup and comes out of the bottle with a somewhat gloopy and dense consistency. Real maple syrup, by comparison, is looser; it develops its color and flavor through prolonged boiling and thickening of tree sap. Amazingly, it takes 40 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup, which is why it's so expensive.

You can buy maple syrup at grocery stores, where you'll notice its higher price tag next to the pancake syrups. It's also available at many private locations—at roadside stands, if you're out in the countryside, or through word of mouth, if you happen to know people with connections to syrup-making—and at health food stores, food co-ops, CSAs, and other food shops.

Real maple syrup is worth the extra expense, and it's not only great as a hot cakes topper but in plenty of other dishes, too. It's a great sweetener for breakfast cereals, hot or cold, tops up cottage cheese and yogurt, makes a tasty marinade for tofu or meat, and even tastes great in a latte, cappuccino, or post-workout smoothie. But why choose maple syrup over other natural sweeteners like honey or sugar?

Sweet Health Benefits of Maple Syrup

Maple sap droplet flowing from tap in tree, maple syrup health benefits
Maple syrup contains an abundant amount of naturally occurring minerals such as calcium, manganese, potassium and magnesium. Joe Mercier/Shutterstock

The health benefits of maple syrup are varied and some of them are so far unproven. What we do know is that it contains significant levels of manganese and zinc, and has 10 times more calcium than honey and much less salt. And despite the fact that it's a type of sugar—sucrose—some studies suggest that it could help prevent Type 2 diabetes.

According to an article in the Classical Medicine Journal, researchers have found that maple syrup phenolics, which are antioxidant compounds, "inhibit two carbohydrate hydrolyzing enzymes that are relevant to type 2 diabetes."

Researchers also found a compound they named Quebecol, a compound created only when sap is boiled to make syrup. "Quebecol has a unique chemical structure or skeleton never before identified in nature," according to Navindra Seeram of the University of Rhode Island.

Phenolics have also been shown to help with the effectiveness of antibiotics. A study presented during the 2017 conference for the American Chemical Society demonstrated that when researchers paired phenolic compounds and antibiotics, they needed less of the antibiotic than usual to kill the bacteria.

"What we found is that when we added the antibiotics with maple syrup-extracted phenolic compounds, we actually needed a lot less antibiotic to kill the bacteria. We could reduce the dose of antibiotic by up to 90%," lead researcher Nathalie Tufenkji told CTV News.

Tufenkji and her team tested the combination on a few different different bacteria, including E. coli, Proteus mirabilis, which causes some urinary tract infections, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a cause of some hospital-acquired infections. Researchers then treated fruit fly and moth larvae food with bacteria that would kill off the consumers quickly with a little bit of the antibiotic and phenolic mixture. The result? Both specimens lived longer than would have otherwise, and they suffered no negative side effects.

"This tells us this treatment approach is very promising in terms of reducing the usage of antibiotics in fighting infections," Tufenkji said. The next step, according to Tufenkji will be treating mice with the mixture.

Health benefits aside, keep in mind that maple syrup is the real thing. The other syrups are imitations of it, products of an industrial food market, and thus inferior. It's better to buy the real thing and use less of it than to buy larger quantities of something (flavored high-fructose corn syrup) that we know is detrimental to human health.

Finding the Right Maple Syrup

maple syrup jars on a shelf

James Marshall / Getty Images

Vermont is New England’s syrup industry leader, with more than 1.3 million gallons of syrup produced in 2015, and the tiny state produced 5.5% of the global supply. New York is the next most productive U.S. state that taps its trees for the golden syrup, with more than 500,000 gallons produced last year. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan all make maple syrup in quantities of around or below 100,000 gallons a year.

But Canada is the undisputed world leader in maple syrup production, creating about 75% of world's pure maple syrup, with 92% of that coming from the province of Quebec. Japan and South Korea also produce syrup on a much smaller scale. It's also worth nothing that in Asia it's traditional to drink the sap as a beverage called gorosoe (considered a health elixir in large quantities), rather than boil it down into syrup.

Syrup Grades

So, how do you choose the right maple syrup? First, realize that all maple syrup produced in North America is graded using the same system. This was implemented in 2015 to reduce confusion between Canada and the United States. All Grade A syrups, available for consumer purchase, consist of two components—color and flavor—and the flavor corresponds with the color. The darker the color is, the richer the flavor will be. This happens because the sap has been boiled down for longer and less of the original tree sap remains.

As explained by the University of New Hampshire, "For a syrup to make the grade, it must fall within the color range for that grade and have the proper flavor to match. Golden syrup must be light in color and have delicate flavor of maple."

There is a second category for maple syrup called "processing grade" in both Canada and the U.S., which is syrup that does not meet Grade A requirements, but does meet them for use in manufacturing other products. This type of syrup is not packed for sale in consumer-sized containers, but is only available in quantities of five gallons or more, so you won't encounter it in the grocery store.

Golden: Delicate flavor, light color. This is associated with the first sap that flows in the season. "The delicate flavor often surprises people who expect a strong maple flavor found in other grades."

Amber: Rich flavor, light amber color. This is the typical grade the people choose when looking for the classic maple syrup flavor.

Dark: Robust flavor, dark amber color. This appeals to people who want an intense maple flavor.

Very Dark: Strong flavor, dark color. This is a very strong flavor that holds up well in cooking and comes through in the finished products.

The only way you can know if you like maple syrup if you've never tried it is to taste it for yourself, so start with a smaller container, and try some right off the spoon to get an idea of the flavor. Try it on cereal or with yogurt or whipped into a smoothie (or you heat it up on the stove, and throw it out on the snow or ice once winter comes for the Northeastern treat, "sugar on snow"). Or you can check out this page of Vermont treats, or this one, for recipes featuring the tasty syrup from the sugar maple tree.

View Article Sources
  1. "Making the Grade—The Color and Flavor of Maple Syrup." University of New Hampshire. 23 March 2022. Press release.

  2. "United States Standards for Grades of Maple Syrup." U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2 March 2015.