Within the supermarket of domesticated foods, a wild redeemer can usually be found: maple syrup. It is the largest commercially produced and consumed natural plant product that is derived exclusively from tree sap, and is one of the remaining wild foods left in the grocery store.
For those who do not have the time, nor the resources, to embark on the path of home sugar production, commercially bought maple syrup is a fine alternative. But how do we know which kind is best for us? Some notable authors declare that there are no nutritional differences between the various grades of syrup. Are they entirely correct in their statements?
First, I’ll just throw it out there for those who may not know: products like Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Buttersworth’s are not real maple syrups. They’re made from high-fructose corn syrup. Call me crazy, but I don’t think Zea mays (corn) gives its sap for the production of sugar in ways quite like a maple tree. What’s more, neither of the aforementioned products even contains the word “maple” in its list of ingredients. I’m sure most of you know all this, but for those who don’t, I’d strongly advise against the consumption of these maple syrup knockoffs.
Moving on, let’s assume we have in front of us 4 different bottles of (real) maple syrup. From left to right, the colors range from light to dark, and the grades progress from US Grade A Light Amber, all the way to US Grade B for Reprocessing. This is the standard labeling in most of the states within the U.S., though Canada has different standards (from Canada No.1 Extra Light to Canada No. 3 Amber). To alleviate confusion, the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) has recommended the adoption of a universal grading scale, assigning a Grade A to all products, and only differentiating by color and taste.
Now, the big question is this: Is there a difference in nutritional value between the lightest bottles and the darkest?
The answer? Of course! There appears to be considerable variation between syrups (using the IMSI classifications of amber, dark, and very dark) in three main areas of nutritional concern: mineral composition, total phenol content, and antioxidant potential (1).
Very dark syrup, which tends to be produced from sap later in the season, has been shown to contain higher levels of calcium and phosphorus than those found in amber syrup. There is, on average, 2.26 times the calcium and 2.76 times the phosphorus in very dark syrup compared to amber syrup. All maple syrup contains a host of minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, and iron, though very dark syrup may boast around 27% more total mineral content than its lighter alternative.
Total phenol content
Phenols are the main phytochemical compounds found in maple syrup. Very dark syrup, on average, may contain up to 2.1 times the phenol content than that of amber syrup. These plant compounds are associated with the darker color of fruits and vegetables, and may give the darker syrups their rich colors. Beyond aesthetics, maple phenols may possess important biological activities, acting as antioxidant, anti-tumor, and anti-cancer agents.
For example, a phenolic-rich extract from maple syrup has been shown to induce cell cycle arrest in human colon cancer cells (2).
Another study showed that maple polyphenols may have potential cancer chemoprotective effects through the induction of cell cycle arrest in colon and breast cancer cells (3).
Among fruits and vegetables, high phenol content is associated with higher antioxidant potential. This is exactly what we see with maple syrup. On average, very dark maple syrup has almost 2 times the antioxidant potential than that of amber syrup. This potential may be greater than those of vitamin C and synthetic commercial antioxidants.
Oxidation is a contributing factor in certain illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. The consumption of dietary antioxidants, like those found in maple syrup, therefore, is necessary to keep the oxidation process in check.
In summary, darker maple syrup tends to contain a higher total mineral content (especially calcium and phosphorus), more phenols, and a higher antioxidant potential than lighter maple syrup. This is handy information for those who may be confused by all the varying labels on maple syrup bottles.
A point I haven’t addressed yet, though one that is worth mentioning, is that home sugar production can be unparalleled when it comes to quality. Most commercial maple syrup is produced with the heavy utilization of plastic in several steps throughout the process. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to expect some leaching of plastic compounds into the final product. The use of more inert materials, therefore, such as stainless steel and glass (included in some home operations), can result in a product that exceeds the quality of any syrup bought in the store.
Regardless of how you acquire maple syrup – either through the grocery store, a neighbor, or your own sugar bush – including this nutritious food at home is a great way to increase the wildness of your diet.
And remember, when choosing a particular grade of maple syrup based on the nutritional profile, a general rule of thumb can be applied: the darker the syrup, the better!
Li L, Seeram NP (2012). Chemical composition and biological effects of maple syrup. In: Patil, BS, Guddadarangavvanahally KJ, Chidambara M, Kotamballi N and Seeram, NP (eds). Emerging trends
in dietary components for preventing and combating disease, 1st ed. Amer Chem Soc., pp 323-333.
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