On pancakes, waffles, oatmeal and more, Americans love maple syrup. The rich flavor is one reason why it’s so popular, but it’s also been touted as a “natural” sweetener that’s better for you than regular old sugar. Not only is that not the case, but it’s also just one of a few big misconceptions people have about maple syrup. For National Maple Syrup Day, we clear up the confusion and give the results of our recent maple syrup tests. (See the two tables below for our results of dark and amber maple syrups, with products listed in rank order.)
Pancake Syrup and Maple Syrup Are Not the Same
Although they may sit side by side on grocery store shelves, they couldn’t be more different. Maple syrup is actually sap from a maple tree that’s been boiled down to reduce the water content and concentrate the sugars. The sugars caramelize, resulting in its characteristic color and maple flavor. It takes about 10 gallons of sap to make just one quart of maple syrup.
Pancake, or table, syrup is a highly processed product. The primary ingredient is corn syrup and/or high-fructose corn syrup. Some experts suggest that high-fructose corn syrup may be processed by the body differently than other types of sugar, while others say that there is little difference. You’ll also find added coloring, flavoring, and preservatives in pancake syrup. The coloring is often caramel color. Some types of caramel color contain a compound called 4-MEI, a potential carcinogen, and in Consumer Reports tests, we found that some pancake syrups had notable amounts of 4-MEI.
In blind tastings, our panel of professional tasters have detected big flavor differences between pancake syrup and maple syrup. Real maple syrup has a clean, complex maple flavor with hints of caramel, vanilla, and prune. Pancake syrups are singularly sweet with little complexity and noticeable artificial flavors.
There’s also some confusion about the differences between maple syrup and maple water, a fairly new option in the beverage aisle. Maple water is the watery sap that’s tapped from the tree and boiled down to make maple syrup. It’s not water with maple syrup mixed in. It usually has around 5 grams of sugars per 8 ounces, but the amount varies by brand.
Maple Syrup Is Not Healthier Than Sugar
Maple syrup does contain more of some nutrients than table sugar—and it is a better choice than pancake syrup—but it certainly isn’t a health food. Whether it’s an ingredient in a packaged food or poured on pancakes or oatmeal, this syrup counts toward your daily added sugars intake. (These are the sugars that are added to food in processing or cooking, not the sugars that are an intrinsic part of fruit or dairy.) The latest U.S. dietary guidelines put a spotlight on added sugars, and for the first time there is a recommended limit: no more than 10 percent of your daily calories.
If you downed ¼-cup of maple syrup—the amount listed as a serving on the nutrition facts label—you’d get 62 percent of your daily needs for riboflavin, about 9 percent of calcium, 8 percent of zinc, and 5 percent of potassium. But many other foods contain those same nutrients without the high calorie load: That same size serving of maple syrup has about 200 calories and 50 grams of sugars—more than in a 12-ounce can of cola. In fact, each tablespoon has about 50 calories and 12 grams of sugars, so drizzle it on lightly. If your pancakes seem too dry, use chopped or pureed fruit to add sweetness; bananas, berries, or peaches are good options.
Grade A Is Not Better Than Grade B
Grade B syrup has a darker color and deeper flavor than grade A, but that doesn’t make it inferior. Many people prefer the more intense flavor of grade B. But this confusion may soon be cleared up in the minds of consumers. Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture changed the labeling system for syrup so that it is in line with international standards. Now all maple syrup is grade A, followed by a color/flavor description:
• Grade A Light Amber is now Grade A Golden Color/Delicate Taste
• Grade A Medium Amber is now Grade A Amber Color/Rich Taste
• Grade A Dark Amber is now Grade A Dark Color/Robust Taste
• Grade B is now Grade A Very Dark Color/Strong Taste
Although this change went into effect in March 2015, not all maple syrup producers have switched over, so you may still see the old grades on labels.
Our expert panel of tasters recently evaluated 14 maple syrups—eight dark, five amber, and one golden—both brand names and private label. For the test, the syrups were served in dark red cups so the color differences wouldn’t influence the experts’ evaluations.
What’s the best type to serve at breakfast or brunch? It depends on your taste. We found the dark syrups to be more intense and complex than the amber syrups, but both types had clean maple flavors. The differences between the colors were quite noticeable when we tasted the golden, amber, and dark color offerings from one brand, Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value Organic Maple Syrup, side by side. The golden syrup was the most sweet with the mildest flavor. The amber syrup had more maple flavor and the dark syrup was complex with big molasses and intense maple flavors.
Per Consumer Reports.