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Syrup from a Tree or from a Lab--Which Should You Pour on Your Pancakes?
At home and in restaurants, the pancake syrup you're using is probably not pure maple syrup but a highly processed product with flavorings that are likely to fool your taste buds into thinking the ingredients just recently left the tree. Is the real stuff better--tastier and/or healthier? Which is the better buy? Let's compare the products in many ways and find out how they differ and which is the better choice. Then let's discuss handling matters--should you refrigerate syrups? How long can you keep them? Final question: What can I cook with syrups?
How are these syrups made?
As you probably know, pure maple syrup comes from maple trees. The syrup begins to run during the spring thaw. Wikipedia explains the process: "Maple syrup is...usually made from the xylem sap of sugar maple, red maple, or black maple trees.... In cold climates, these trees store starch in their trunks and roots before the winter; the starch is then converted to sugar that rises in the sap in the spring. Maple trees can be tapped by boring holes into their trunks and collecting the exuded sap. The sap is processed by heating to evaporate much of the water, leaving the concentrated syrup."
Imitation maple syrups, commonly called "pancake syrups," are manufactured.
What areas of the world does real maple syrup come from?
Pure maple syrup comes from maple trees that grow well in eastern Canada and the cooler states of the U.S. (for example, from New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio.) Quebec, Canada is by far the largest producer of this product, generating about 75% of the world's supply. Vermont is the largest producer in the U.S., generating about 5.5% of the global supply.
What's in these products? How much sugar? How many calories?
The main ingredient (as you might have guessed) is sugar (or, in some cases, artificial sweetening). To honestly label itself "pure maple syrup," the product is required to be 66-67% sugar. Anderson's pure maple has no ingredients list. The bottle says it's made from "pure maple sap and nothing more."
The ingredients listed on two popular brands of synthetic syrups (Aunt Jemima and Log Cabin) are primarily water, sugar, flavorings coloring, and corn syrup. Log Cabin tells consumers, in all caps, "NO HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP." Aunt Jemima lists high fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient.
The calorie count and grams of sugar, generally given on the bottles for a 1/4 cup serving size, run about this way:
for pure maple syrup, agave or artificial regular (not low calorie) syrups:
about 50 grams of sugar (12+ teaspoons!); about 200-210 calories
for syrups labeled "lite":
about half the calories and half the sugar, 25 grams of sugar; 100 calories
for syrups labeled sugar free and low calorie:
10 grams of sugar alcohols and 30 calories (Carey's syrup)
7 grams of sugar alcohol and 20 calories (Smucker's® syrup)
Which is healthier--natural syrups (such as maple or agave) or artificial products?
The painful truth is that both types of these delicious products are mostly sugar, which is not a healthful food. However, according to the website Feast Every Day, the sugar in pure maple syrup is easily digestible, unlike the high fructose corn syrup in many artificial pancake syrups. Yes, natural syrups contain some nutrients, but you'd have to eat an impossibly huge amount to make a significant contribution to your health.
Here's the safety question that has gotten a lot of media coverage lately: what about the caramel coloring that makes the artificial syrups brown? Can they really cause cancer? Shelf Life Advice discusses this question at length in this article: "Is Caramel Coloring in Sodas and Syrup Dangerous?" The FDA's conclusion is that, in the amounts people usually consume, it is not harmful. Consumer Reports advises people to consume products with 4-MEI (such as colas, imitation maple syrups, and foods seasoned with sauces containing 4-MEI) in moderation.
Note that the chemical compound of concern (referred to as 4-MEI) is not an additive; it's formed during the heating process and is actually in your pancakes as well as your fake syrup. Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen explained it this way: "Caramel coloring is naturally created when cooking certain types of foods by certain processes. Manufacturers recreate the same conditions in a concentrated form to use as an ingredient and create a uniform product."
Hungry Jack Original (a Smucker's® product) and Aunt Jemima had the most 4-MEI of the brands tested by Consumer Reports, but the difference may not be significant in terms of health risk.
Pure maple syrup is naturally brown and contains almost no 4-MEI.
Dr. Bowser believes that pure maple syrup is healthier than the artificial products. He suggests that consumers check out these online articles--Benefits of Maple Syrup and Which is Healthier: Real Maple Syrup or Fake?--for more information about health benefits.
However, Dr. Bowser also says this about the alternatives: "I don’t think there is any risk in using the 'fake stuff.' So go ahead and enjoy your syrup the way you like it!" Dr. Allen expressed the same sentiments.
There are many alternatives to maple syrup, real or imitation. To name just a few, there's honey, agave, molasses, and sorghum. But there's no getting away from the fact that sugar is what makes them all taste wonderful.
For more information about agave, see this Shelf Life Advice article: "Three Sweeteners You May Want to Try: Advantame, Coconut Palm Sugar, and Agave."
What's the shelf life of these sweet syrups?
"Here's what Dr. Bowser says about the shelf life of pure maple syrup: "The shelf life should be many years when packaged correctly. That being said, I would recommend about 12 months for the unopened product (that was well made) and 3 months for an opened product if it is refrigerated. The high sugar content inhibits many organisms but not mold and yeast. If you see some mold, just remove it. If you smell yeast, discard it. For long-term storage, you can freeze maple syrup. It will not turn solid.
"Since the pH of maple syrup might be around 5.5, it could potentially support some unhealthy bacteria. The high sugar levels will normally prevent the growth of most pathogens, but there could be problems if it is diluted or was improperly processed. It stands to reason that the fresher product would taste better. However, as far as I know, the aging process is not important to the flavor of maple syrup."
The shelf life of the lab-made syrups is indicated by the date on the bottle. However, that date may disappear (get wiped off) after you've handled the bottle many times. Aunt Jemima says her product is good for one year, opened or unopened. However, the low-calorie, sugar-free products may have a shorter shelf life. If you need to know, call the company's customer service number on the bottle. If you use syrup only occasionally, buy a small (8-12 oz.) bottle.
Can I microwave or refrigerate these products?
To warm your syrup, DO NOT put the plastic bottle into the microwave. Pour as much as you need into a microwave-safe container, and then put it in the microwave.
Should you refrigerate non-maple syrups? According to the Aunt Jemima customer service line, no. That may make the sugar in it crystalize/caramelize. However, it's okay, even recommended, to refrigerate Carey's sugar-free low-calorie syrup. It will probably remain tasty longer if you do.
Dr. Bowser (and many others) recommends refrigerating real maple syrup once the bottle has been opened.
Which type of syrup tastes better--natural or man-made?
That depends whom you ask. Dr. Bowser prefers pure maple syrup. In the process of taste-testing for this article, I've tried a number of products in both categories. Here are some of my favorites: I liked some pure maple syrup. (I liked the one made in Vermont best). I also liked agave. But I didn't find the taste of these natural products so superior to the artificial ones that they were worth the additional calories and high-sugar consumption.
Of the artificial pancake syrups I tried, I'm partial to Aunt Jemima lite. But, if I gain a few pounds on it, I may switch to Cary's sugar-free, low-calorie syrup. It tasted better than I expected, and I could get used to it. I never taste-tested the regular artificial sweeteners. The "lite" ones were plenty sweet enough for me.
Three points must be made about the taste of syrups:
- Pure maple syrups vary in taste quite a bit. Dr. Bowser explains: "There is a lot of art in making good maple syrup and variation between seasons, processors, and locations should be expected."
- Pure maple syrup tends to be less viscous than the artificial product. However, that depends upon the particular brand. Anderson pure maple syrup is thicker than the Wisconsin one I tried, which was downright runny.
- A lab-made brand of a particular syrup (whether regular, "lite," or sugar free) will always taste the same. Once you find the one you like, you can count on the next bottle you buy being equally pleasing. That's a plus. But, each brand of "lite" syrup tastes different from other brands. Therefore, don't reject all "lite" syrups just because you don't like the first one you try.
Why is maple syrup so expensive?
Here's Dr. Bowser's answer: "The price varies for many reasons, but some of the most important are these: weather (good maple tree sap-growing weather includes a nice, moist summer and a cold winter), effects of pests, the price of fuel (to evaporate the water and for transportation), and the economy in general. Recently there has been a high demand for natural sweeteners, and maple syrup is near the top of that category. The increase in demand has also fueled higher prices."
The blog Feast Every Day points out that 40 gallons of maple sap boils down to 1 gallon of syrup. "Producing it is labor intensive, and supply is limited."
Maple syrup costs about $1 an ounce, compared to 20 cents an ounce for syrups made with corn syrup, according to Feast Every Day. In my supermarket, I found 8-oz. bottles of two different brands of pure maple syrup that were priced in the $8-$9.50 range. However, a 24-oz. bottle of Aunt Jemima "lite" (artificial pancake syrup) sold for $3.69. The 24-oz. bottle of the store brand pancake syrup was on sale for $2.29.
What about the syrup served in pancake houses and diners? Almost always, it's the imitation product. In the Chicago suburbs, the IHop (International House of Pancakes) restaurants I dined at don't carry real maple syrup. I was told that those places that do have it routinely charge extra for a small amount, sometimes $3 for 4 oz. At Lucky Platter, an Evanston, Illinois diner I frequent, customers can get pure maple syrup with their pancakes or waffles--for $1 extra for 2 oz. or $2 for 4 oz.
What are some ways to use syrup at home?
The following suggestions were attached to the bottle of Anderson's maple syrup I purchased: use it to sweeten coffee or tea, as a sauce on ice cream, or as a taste enhancer when cooking carrots or broccoli (perhaps to get the kids to give vegetables a try). Of course, these suggestions are in addition to the usual uses--on pancakes, French toast, or waffles. Dr. Bowser likes to brush pure maple syrup on pork ribs during the final stages of the smoking process. He says that this treatment will guarantee clean rib-bones and eliminate leftovers.
What do YOU do with maple (or imitation maple) syrup? And which one(s) do you prefer? Please comment below.
Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering
Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences
Consumer Reports on Health, "A health alert about pancake syrup," June 2014.
feasteveryday.blogspot.com "Why is Real Maple Syrup So Expensive?"
livestrong.com "Is Maple Syrup Healthy?"
wikipdia.org "Maple Syrup"