behind-the-label

Behind The Label Of Your Food: Investigating Maple Syrup

It’s finally time for another post in the Behind The Label Of Your Food series, where we’re peeling back the pretty packaging and marketing hype to see what’s really going on in our food.

As promised long ago, here’s some information on maple syrup – how it’s made, what kind to choose, why it’s better than the fake stuff, whether or not you should pay more for organic, and more!

How maple syrup is made

Maple syrup is made by extracting the sap from a maple tree, where it is then boiled down to make syrup.  It takes about 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of maple syrup – yikes, no wonder it’s so expensive!

Comparing real versus fake

How does real maple syrup compare to the fake stuff?

Well, maple syrup is still basically sugar, though it is much less processed than table sugar. It would be considered a whole food by most people, though of course, even whole foods are not good if over-indulged in!

An article from the Canadian Encyclopedia had this to say about maple syrup, as well as an interesting anecdote about honey:

Maple syrup has an abundance of trace minerals that are essential to good nutrition: potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, iron, zinc, copper and tin, as well as calcium in concentrations 15 times higher than honey

If you really want the nitty gritty on the nutrient breakdown of maple syrup, see this chart from the USDA.

How does “pancake syrup” compare to real maple syrup?  Well, let’s just look at the ingredient lists:

Aunt Jemima Original Syrup
Corn Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Water
Cellulose Gum
Caramel Color
Salt
Sodium Benzoate (preservative)
Sorbic Acid (preservative)
Artificial and natural flavors
Sodium Hexametaphosphate

Maple Syrup
Maple Syrup

Huh.  Well, it doesn’t take an expert nutritionist to figure out that there’s an awful lot of not-so-good stuff for you in pancake syrup.  We’ve got corn syrup as the main base (highly, highly processed), water as the third ingredient (cheap!), and then a bunch of preservatives and flavors to make it taste like something other than corn syrup and water.

So, you are ready to stop dumping high fructose corn syrup on your organic, whole-grain pancakes.  But then you head to the store and are bombarded with the different grades of maple syrup – not to mention which fancy bottle to choose!  Here’s some information on the different grades that will help you determine which one is best for you.

Different grades of maple syrup

Image from Wikipedia

There are four grades of maple syrup.  Here’s the list, with the mildest maple syrup being Grade A Light Amber and the most intense being Grade B:

Grade A Light Amber
Also known as “Fancy” if it’s Vermont maple syrup
Grade A Medium Amber
Grade A Dark Amber
Grade B

We are currently using a Grade A Dark Amber syrup – we like the maple flavor, and don’t find it overpowering at all.  If you have previously tasted maple syrup and thought it was much too strong of a flavor, I would encourage you to start with the lightest variety you can find.

I’ve purchased Grade B syrup before, at Whole Foods, I believe – it was too “maple-y” for pancakes, but if you are trying to impart maple flavor into something, this would be the type to choose.   Sometimes Grade B is referred to as maple syrup for cooking and baking.  It’s not widely available, but if you can find it, it will often be cheaper than Grade A.

Since you’re probably not eating maple syrup for the health benefits (there are some, but the main benefit is really just switching from a highly processed product to something much more natural), there doesn’t seem to be a huge difference as far as nutrition between the different types of syrup.

Should I pay more for organic maple syrup?

The organic versus non-organic debate will never rest, but I personally wouldn’t spend extra for certified organic maple syrup.  It seems unlikely that most producers of real maple syrup would use any sort of pesticides in growing their maple trees.

Here’s a quote from from the Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program:

The overwhelming majority of maple syrup is produced in forests where no herbicides or pesticides have been applied.  Therefore, most maple syrup would be considered organic.

However, not all maple syrup is certified organic – outside of a rare sale, you’ll definitely pay more for certified organic maple syrup, even if there is very little difference between organic and non-organic.

At least for my family, there are many other things that I would pay more for the “organic” label than for maple syrup.

Transitioning to real maple syrup

Image from Amazon

If you don’t like a heavy maple flavor or are transitioning from the fake stuff to the real stuff, I would suggest going with the lightest variety you can find.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve purchased syrup in bulk at a place like Whole Foods or Natural Grocers, but if they do still carry it in bulk, you can try buying just a little at a time and testing it out on your family.

You could also try mixing the fake syrup and the real syrup to get your family used to the taste.  I know many people swear that they hate real maple syrup, but I think most people can change their palate, especially if it’s done slowly.

You can also make your own pancake syrup, as my friend Connie shows in that link.  I would suggest using real maple syrup instead of the maple extract if you are trying to transition to real maple syrup.

Where to get a deal on maple syrup

Though maple syrup is never truly cheap, you can get it for much cheaper at a few places than you’ll ever pay at Walmart or King Soopers.

First, I would suggest checking the bulk sections of stores like Natural Grocers and Whole Foods to see if they have maple syrup.  I know Whole Foods carried it several years ago, but I haven’t checked recently.

If you’re just trying it out, I would buy a little bit at a time in bulk, rather than buying a large jug.  It may not be the cheapest per ounce, but it will be much cheaper to test it out on your family this way, rather than buying a jug and finding out you just cannot convince you family to eat it and it goes to waste.

Once you know that you like maple syrup, I would compare prices at these stores:

Sam’s Club
Costco
Natural Grocers
Whole Foods
Amazon.com

Sam’s Club currently has a 32-ounce jug of Grade A Dark Amber for $13.28.  This is generally the cheapest price in town, though they do only carry the one grade.

I’ve seen 32-ounce jugs of organic Grade A maple syrup as low as $16.99 at Natural Grocers (last November, for example).

And, it’s worth checking Amazon’s list of maple syrup products, as every now and then they do have sales that rival the in-store prices here, esepecially if you use their 15% discount for subscribing and saving.

Real maple syrup: what do you think?

What do you think about real maple syrup?  Is it worth the extra expense?  Did you grow up using the real stuff or the fake stuff, and if you’ve switched from one to the other, what instigated the switch?

Please join the discussion in the comments!

More posts from the Behind The Label Of Your Food series:

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Comments

  1. Jessica says:

    We make our own syrup. Not maple, but my kids love it…and it’s ingredients we always have on hand.

  2. Can’t stand the real stuff. It’s way too sweet and overpowering. The “pancake” syrup I use doesn’t contain HFCS (and it’s not that hard to find syrup that doesn’t) and since it’s the Light version, it has less calories per serving than some of the real maple syrups listed here!

  3. Amanda says:

    I grew up with the real maple syrup and just adore it. I hated the “syrup” at restaurants and most people’s homes because it was always fake (except Cracker Barrel). My husband was easily converted, but it could be due to the fact I never purchased the fake kind so it was real or plain. :)

    I did learn that it is supposed to be refrigerated, though, quite recently. My family always stored it in the cuppord to no harm that I know of, but the bottles now clearly state to refrigerate after opening.

    Wondering if anyone has ever tried making maple candy in fresh, clean snow as described by Laura Ingels Wilder in one of her books (could be the Big Snow). I have always wanted to try, but have been kept back by the cost of real maple syrup.

    • j. debra says:

      If real maple syrup is not refrigerated, it will go rancid and mold will develop thro’out the clear brown liquid, nasty schtuff. I know!

      Was sorry that I had to pour an entire gallon of it down the drain b/c of it. Never did that again! 8(

  4. Sarah H says:

    Great info, thanks!

  5. Amanda, you can make sugar-on-snow (an annual tradition in Vermont- lots of sugar-on-snow suppers at churches and in communities) but make sure you know how to adjust for the altitude. I live at 7000′ and tried to make some a couple years ago after a good snowfall and didn’t realize I had to adjust. Instead of a soft chewy sort of caramel-like texture, I got something closer to not quite finished hard candy that stuck in my teeth like you wouldn’t believe. You don’t really have to use a lot of syrup to do it, especially if you’ve never had it, just try a really small batch. Even as a kid, I don’t think I could really eat my whole serving ( and we used to drink maple syrup out of the fridge sometimes…).
    (perhaps I should mention that I am from Vermont…)

    • Now I need a good spring snow! I will just have to try this with my children. Sounds like a great memory maker.

  6. I grew up on the “real stuff” (as my family calls it) in NY! My grandfather and uncle worked the sugar house and we always had it fresh, even getting to help in the collection process. I love it! We do buy both since maple syrup is pricey, but I love the taste of maple. We often had sugar snow like the indians and pioneers did, eating maple syrup on fresh snow. Yum, but I’m a bit more cautious doing it with more smog and such in our atmosphere. The maple sugar that was taken as waste off the syrup in the sugaring process was always so delicious spread on a slice of toast. We had varying ambers over the years as we had different prefrences, but the light amber is usually what we enjoyed the most. Yes, it should be stored in the fridge. It lasts for a long time and can be reboiled and skimmed should it start to go bad.

  7. Lauren says:

    I grew up with the fake stuff but switched to real once I read the ingredients. I’ve never heard of anyone who can’t stand the real thing. Maybe that’s like my friends who prefer break and bake cookies to real homemade cookies.

  8. Grew up on the real stuff, can’t stand what my family calls “faple.” (fake maple) Like rum, the darker the syrup, the better I like it!

    I remember making sugar on snow with my grandparents, and my Aunt making tons of maple sugar candy. During Maple Weekends in the northeast, you can get hotdogs and hardboiled eggs that have been cooked in the boiling sap, as well as maple cotton candy. Oooooh, and maple butter should be illegal, it’s so addicting!

  9. It’s not something I generally buy, but I will barter with friends who live in the northeast. I send them honey, they send me maple syrup or maple sugar. Love maple sugar as a special treat!

    I also make pancake syrup sometimes. All it is is sugar, water, maple flavoring, and I add a couple of drops of vanilla, which give it a lovely taste.

    Finally, we have a small fruit orchard out back, and when I make glace’ fruit, I can the syrup that is produced as a byproduct, so I also have cherry, apricot and peach syrups on hand.

  10. We grew up using the fake, but after I started changing our eating habits I switched to the real stuff. It took a little getting used to, but now I love it. I think the fake stuff tastes sickeningly sweet now that we have grown used to the real stuff.

    I noticed someone said that cracker barrell serves the real stuff. I have been wondering if there were any restaurants that served the real stuff. I have never been to cracker barrell, but will definitely check it out. Does anyone know of any other restaurants that serve the real stuff?

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