Maple Syrup: Relish the Real

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I’ll confess. I’m a maple-syrup-aholic. I slather my pancakes with our homemade syrup and bake with it and maple sugar with guilt-free abandon, but this was not always the case. I probably shouldn’t mention this, but I’m going to come clean. I’m going to admit something that you probably won’t relate to, since, well, you chose to read a book about how to make maple syrup. Here goes … I never liked rich, real maple syrup. I (gasp) preferred store-bought, fructose-laden, highly processed syrup in a bottle shaped like a sweet old lady. I can’t explain this irrational behavior to you, now that I am oh-so-much wiser. I didn’t see real syrup’s value for the first four decades of my life.

Real food always trumps the alternatives

It was 100 percent Bill’s idea to tap into the sugary joy running through the veins of the maples in our woods. I went along with the craziness just because it would be a great family project. The first few months, nothing changed my mind about maple syrup. Our eight measly jars of it were horribly dark, slightly crystalized, not-very-good-tasting, low-rate syrup, but when Bill experimented with a new product, when a few jars of syrup were crystalized beyond hope, and he (literally) whipped up some maple sugar, I was a convert. Now I was whole-heartedly “in” on this new family project. Folks say you want to use the best syrup to make the best maple sugar, but holy cow if that first batch of our maple sugar was “bad,” well, I’ll take “bad” maple sugar any day.

Then two things happened the following winter that turned my heart away from the dark side of not-real syrup forever. First of all, we talked to some experts and stopped “winging it” with our turning-sap-into-syrup efforts. As a result, we started churning out heavenly jars of golden liquid sugar. Secondly, I started reading about the goodness of real maple syrup. Until I became more knowledgeable myself, I didn’t partake too much in our family’s exuberance over maple syrup. In fact, I used it sparingly. I still thought the highly processed syrup on aisle 5 of my grocery store was somehow better for me. I was concerned that our homemade liquid sugary gold was too high in, well, sugar. What I wasn’t thinking about was the difference in the sugar processed in a factory versus the sugar being created in nature — my own little wooded corner of nature, as a matter of fact.

Real food, gathered and packaged in real ways, will always trump any other alternative. Scientists have invested lots of lab time analyzing the properties of maple syrup, and the findings are incredible. While sugary foods aren’t exactly revered for their health benefits, maple syrup may be the healthiest way to sweeten your food. Compare refined sugar, which is highly processed with zero nutrition, to maple syrup — an all-natural, totally real food — and maple syrup always wins. If used in moderation, it’s truly a super food. Since maple syrup is also calorie dense, you do want to avoid overeating it, unless you enjoy weight gain. Since a high intake of any sugar can lead to dental decay, you do want to brush well after enjoying a syrupy treat, but as long as you eat it wisely, pure, all-natural, amazing maple syrup is, in my opinion, as good as a sweetener gets, y’all. I think the basic reason for that lies in the fact that we eat it in its natural state. In today’s over-sugared culture, we need a truly healthy option.

Nutrition is complex

Back in 1988, when Oprah lost a ton of weight, she decided to make a memorable impression on her audience. She, consequently, changed our society’s view of fat forever when she pulled a red Radio Flyer wagon onto the stage filled with nasty, greasy animal fat to represent how much weight she had lost. Seeing fat as the gross enemy in the 1980s and 1990s is, many experts believe, the root cause of America’s obesity and diabetes crisis.

Then in 1992, the new food pyramid made the push for a low-fat diet official. It was obvious in the new pyramid that carbs were good and fat was bad. Indeed, that pyramid became the most widely adopted food guideline in the history of our nation. One survey reported that most Americans — more than 8 out of 10 — believed the food pyramid was the basis of a perfect eating plan. The problem is that all of us who were the byproduct of that movement, myself included, wound up cutting out all fats, loving all carbs, and, ironically, facing obesity. Because not all fats are equal, some are even good, and not all carbs are equal. In fact, our body just converts the simple carbs (white bread and baked goods) into sugar.

The worst impact of the low-fat craze? It dramatically increased the amount of sugar that Americans were eating. You see, as a low-fat craze planted deep roots across the nation, the food industry developed thousands of low-fat options that resulted in high amounts of sugar and carbohydrates to make those foods taste good without the fat.

In the end, we eat 400 more calories today than we did before we watched Oprah pulling her disgusting wagon of animal fat, and we, as a nation, are facing an obesity epidemic. The best solution, in my mind, is to get back to eating more real food and real, all-natural sugar. The bottom line? Nutrition is complex! The science of nutrition is still young and evolving. But real food, the way God intended, well, it’s been around since the beginning and it hasn’t been proven wrong so far.

different kinds of sugar and maple syrup on a wooden background

There’s nothing refined about maple

When I learned a little about the production methods of refined sugar, and compared that process to our simple efforts making all-natural sugar, I began substituting maple syrup for refined sugar in baking and as an everyday sweetener whenever I could.

While maple syrup is made directly from boiled-down tree sap, straight from nature, with zero added anything, refined sugar is processed in a factory. It’s made from either sugar cane or sugar beets and requires a huge amount of processing. First, the cane or beets are mixed with hot water. Then they’re boiled and mashed to release the juices. Different chemicals are used at various points in the refining process. Then the cane or beet juices are filtered and whitened using carbon, bone char, or an ion exchange system. Once all the water eventually evaporates from the juice, the factory is left with the granulated, white sugar — 99.96 percent sucrose — that gets shipped to your local grocery stores. The final product doesn’t resemble the sweetener in its natural state at all at that point and it offers you zero health benefits, only pure sucrose.

Of course, the idea of maple syrup being a super-food sweetener is not a new one. The native people of Canada were making maple syrup — and gaining the health benefits from it — long before European settlers had even heard of the idea of tapping a tree for sugar.

Maple syrup is a crazy, beneficial cocktail

Maple syrup and maple sugar contain an impressive list of compounds. In fact, science is discovering even more every year. For now, the minerals that we know are in maple include calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese. These minerals all play a part in important body functions, from cell formation to immune support, red blood cell maintenance to bone and teeth strength, and so much more. Maple syrup is also loaded with antioxidants, which boost our immune system. Maple syrup is swimming with polyphenolic compounds. In fact, maple syrup is truly a unique cocktail of crazy-beneficial compounds, combining some polyphenols you’ll find in berries, some in tea, and some in flaxseed, but all in one teaspoon of maple syrup. By the way, I’m not making up this idea of a beneficial cocktail. If I counted the number of times I’ve read the word “cocktail” in reports and journals when scientists discuss the beneficial compounds in maple syrup, I might start to wonder if they write these reports during happy hour in the lab.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that, as crazy as it seems, the sugar we collect, filter, and bottle straight out of a tree offers amazing, good-for-you stuff. I’m talking stuff like you find in fresh tomatoes, whole wheat, and red wine. This good stuff may protect our bodies from a slew of health problems–from cardiovascular disease to cancer and — this is where it gets really interesting — some of these compounds have not been found anywhere else.

I’ve read studies by Dr. Navidra Seeram, a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, and Dr. Nathalie Tufenkji, a professor in chemical engineering at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, and I’m blown away by the good stuff they’ve discovered in a spoonful of maple syrup. In fact, maple syrup has polyphenols that you won’t find anywhere else in nature. When researchers in Japan fed mice some maple extracts with polyphenols, they found that gene expression was altered in the metabolism and the insulin sensitivity of the mice. Now I’m not even close to being a scientist, but I have to wonder if someday we might learn there’s something in maple syrup that combats weight gain and high insulin levels. As implausible as that may sound–finding a compound in an all-natural sugar that fights diabetes — that’s not even the scientific discovery about maple that gets me the most excited!

You can boil your sap and drink it too

Early on in my research to know more about maple, I had a nagging thought in the back of my mind. Doesn’t boiling anything kill most of the good stuff in food? Like vegetables, for instance. I know I gain more nutritional benefit eating raw broccoli than cooked broccoli and more benefit eating fresh-picked green beans than canned ones. So wouldn’t the same be true of maple?

Interestingly enough, the act of boiling actually makes more compounds in the sap. It seems that the combination of concentrating the sap into syrup, and heating the sap, causes the formation of unique compounds that no one has documented anywhere else in nature. So when we boil sap, we’re doing chemistry in our backyards by introducing heat and making new compounds that you won’t find anywhere else in anything else you eat. Now if that’s not nutritional, delicious magic, well, I don’t know what is. (Finally, I’ve found a chemistry class I can love, unlike high school chemistry. Sorry, Mrs. Smith, nothing against you.)

One such compound was found recently by researchers at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. They were able to isolate a polyphenol that no one has ever seen before. As far as they can tell, it doesn’t exist in the sap, only in maple syrup. One fun thing about being a scientist is you get to come up with cool names for things you discover. Since 80 percent of the world’s syrup comes from Quebec, the researchers named this compound Quebecol. You’ve got to love that.

Fighting diabetes, germs, and inflammation

Scientists are wondering if Quebecol may be vital in the fight against type 2 diabetes and illnesses caused by bacteria. Quebecol has been found to be an effective anti-inflammatory. Even better — and so exciting! — Quebecol is being touted as a potential anti-cancer drug. Quebecol may someday be a more effective replacement for what’s currently used in colon and breast cancer chemotherapy, with much less severe side effects. Even so, Quebecol is only one of the amazing ingredients you find in maple syrup.

Inulin is another newly discovered bonus in maple syrup. It’s a complex carbohydrate, or a natural fiber, that is a sort of prebiotic. Amazingly enough, inulin works to encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in our guts, joining forces with the other polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals that we already knew were housed in maple syrup. In fact, many scientists agree that the totally unique combination of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties in maple syrup very well may be discovered to aid in all kinds of chronic diseases, even neurodegenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s. Yep, research has shown that pure maple syrup can be linked to brain health. Honestly, I think it’s about time for maple syrup to be used in kitchens around the world, don’t you?

At a recent maple syrup symposium, where Dr. Navidra Seeram was one of the main organizers, he explained, “A healthy gut, with a balance of beneficial bacteria, helps to stimulate and support a healthy immune system. A healthy immune system, then, can help protect the body against chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been shown to have a potential link to brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. As such, this research provides additional information linking pure maple syrup, a unique natural sweetener, to brain health.”

On the flip side, while there are amazing compounds created when sap is boiled down to syrup, I’d be remiss if I didn’t explain that some nutrition-rich ingredients are found in sap that no longer exist when the sap is boiled to syrup. Out of 10 antioxidant compounds found in sugar maple sap, only 3 are found in maple syrup. So, obviously at least 7 antioxidants are lost in the transformation from sap to syrup. So if you can drink maple sap and also use maple syrup and sugar as sweeteners, you’re gaining a wide variety of different antioxidants and other compounds. Use sap in place of water to make drinks. Check out the end of this chapter for a few of my favorites.

Bill’s Tip on Tap

Is maple syrup really just boiled maple tree sap? There’s nothing else in it?

Yep. This fact seems too good to be true, but it is. Syrup seems too sweet to have no additives, but it doesn’t.

Michelle’s Tip on Tap

What about stevia? Is it as good a sweetener as maple sugar?

I actually used to use stevia a lot, because it is all-natural, but I greatly prefer the taste of maple, and it packs nutrients into every spoonful. Stevia carries zero calories, but it also carries zero nutrients.

Also from Sweet Maple:

Did you know that there are nearly two dozen tappable trees across the United States? Chances are you have at least one in your very own backyard. Want to bring more healthy food and sustainability into your life? In Sweet Maple, sugarmaker Michelle Visser and her family guide you through every step of all-natural syrup production–with directions for tapping one tree or dozens. In addition to sugaring techniques, tips from sugar shacks, and fun stories of multi-generational family operations, she shares many of her own family’s tried-and-true maple recipes while detailing the life-changing benefits of using maple products in place of refined sugar in the kitchen. Join Michelle on her family’s sweet journey, from tap to table.

Reprinted with permission from Sweet Maple: Backyard Sugarmaking from Tap to Table by Michelle Visser and published by Lyons Press, 2019.