As a native New Englander, there are few things I find more comforting than lazily waking up on a frosty winter morning and being greeted by the heavenly smell of golden waffles cooking in the kitchen. My fond memories of eagerly cutting into a warm stack of fluffy waffles are always coupled with reaching across the table for a bottle of rich, amber-colored, maple syrup. As I grew older, the slow New England mornings were gradually replaced with a quick cup of hot coffee, a burnt bagel and an overall depreciation in the intimate morning breakfast routine.
Besides the occasional days I’d decide to have breakfast for dinner (commonly known as Brinner), maple syrup slowly shifted off my radar and out of my kitchen. It wasn’t until I started working on a farm that practiced sugar-tapping and sap collection that I really valued the artful production and the great nutrimental value of this natural, plant derived syrup. As my interest in maple syrup magnified, I became aware of the multitude of maple products that dominate the marketplace and how difficult it is to pick an unadulterated syrup. A recent study conducted by the “Vancouver Sun,” concluded that about half of consumers don’t really understand the difference between real and fake maple syrup. With more studies praising the healthy compounds found in pure maple syrup, it is becoming increasingly important that consumers know the difference between the pure stuff and the cheap, artificial sweeteners that saturate the market today.
The custom of collecting maple syrup is one of the oldest food processing traditions in upper North America. Native Americans began boiling maple syrup before European habitation and would often use maple candy as gifts, in trade, or as a cooking agent. The tradition of boiling down the maple sap to release excess moisture and concentrate the sugar is still employed by maple farmers today. As a result, pure maple syrup contains no added or artificial ingredients and is an all-natural food. In the United States today, Vermont consistently produces the most maple syrup, producing an average of half a million gallons of golden syrup every year.
When comparing different varieties of pure maple syrup, consumers may notice that authentic syrup has varying degrees of color and grades. Most maple-producing states and provinces have their own laws regulating syrup sold in those states. States without such regulations must follow the USDA regulations. Syrup flavor and grade are influenced by soil type, tree genetics, weather conditions, the season when the sap is collected, and the processing technique. The color of the syrup indicates the taste, nutrient content and time of year that the syrup was harvested. Please view the small guide below which gives a short introduction to the traditional maple syrup grading system.
Grade A – Light Amber (Harvested in the early spring)
Best used as a topping (drizzled over pancakes). This syrup has a clean, pure flavor.
Grade A– Medium Amber
Full-bodied flavor that is great on ice cream, fresh fruit or used to flavor cocktails. Rich and full of maple flavor.
Grade A– Dark Amber (Harvested in the late spring)
A deep, rich flavor that tastes great in oatmeal or yogurt
Grade B – (Harvested toward the end of the sap season)
High viscosity, well-balanced and very palatable. Comparable to a dark honey.
Maple syrup is rich in a plethora of essential nutrients such as Manganese and Zinc which have been shown to bolster the immune system. Additionally, recent studies have discovered pure maple syrup to contain trace amounts of calcium, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, potassium and magnesium. The presence of bioactive phytochemicals (beneficial compounds produced by plants) in real maple syrup may be one of its biggest advantages over imitation syrup. Compounds in maple syrup called phenolics may have a protective effect against cancer. A November 2010 study in the “Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry” found 23 different phenolic compounds in maple syrup, including 16 previously unidentified ones. Other phytochemicals in maple syrup include the antioxidants coumarin, vanillin, and gallic acid, which neutralize free radicals that could harm healthy cells.
In the United States, the FDA mandates that in order for a product to be labeled as “maple syrup”, the product must be made almost entirely from maple sap. The only exceptions are if there are trace amounts of added substances, such as salt. Instead of being labeled as “maple syrup”, imitation products are branded as “pancake syrup”, “waffle syrup” or “table syrup” and contain other substances besides sap. These products are produced on a massive scale, are less expensive and are devoid of the beneficial nutrient content that pure maple syrup offers. A quick glance at the ingredients will show that the primary ingredient in most of these popular, imitation brands is high fructose corn syrup. According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, consuming high-fructose corn syrup may lead to weight gain and obesity. Other unappetizing ingredients that are commonly added include caramel food coloring, phosphoric acid (to help slow the growth of molds and bacteria in sugary formulas), cellulose gum (adds bulk and texture to watery formulas), and various food preservatives. Popular imitation syrups include Eggo, Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Log Cabin, and Hungry Jack.
Similar to other plant-based products, look for maple syrup produced by small-scale farmers who engage in sustainable practices. Since an overwhelming majority of pure maple syrup is produced in forests where no herbicides or pesticides have been applied, most maple syrup is considered to be organic. Like all sweeteners, maple syrup should be used in moderation.
Stayed tuned for a delicious Moringa waffle recipe!