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Does maple syrup have health benefits?

For hundreds of years, Canada’s maple trees have been tapped in spring to release sap that is collected in buckets and boiled down to make amber-colourd maple syrup. The eastern provinces—home to large black and red maple trees—are known around the western world for production of maple syrup that is especially delicious on waffles and pancakes, but is also used to sweeten a variety of dishes including root vegetables, oatmeal porridge and meat glazes. Is maple syrup just another sweetener with no nutrient benefits or can it be part of a healthy diet? How does it compare to honey?

It is fair to say that maple syrup is not a healthy food. However, sweetening agents including white table sugar, brown sugar, honey and various syrups serve a purpose in the diet by making healthy foods more agreeable to the taste. In other words, people will continue to consume sweeteners in various forms, and if used with discretion by those who are otherwise healthy, they will not do the body harm. When comparing the various sugaring agents, one can point out reasons why maple syrup might have a slight nutritional edge, although that said, one would not consume the syrup for any type of health benefit, but rather enjoy it for the unique flavour it gives to favourite foods.

Source of carbohydrates

The main components of maple syrup are sucrose (a complex sugar which breaks down into the simple sugars fructose and glucose) which is a source of carbohydrates, and the source of most calories (syrup has no protein and a tiny amount of fat). Because honey has a different make-up of sugars than maple syrup does, the calorie count is slightly higher. While carbohydrates are a source of energy, what must be determined is, what nutrients do we ingest with the consumption of calories? If the intake of nutrients is minimal, the food should be eaten in moderation. This is true of both maple syrup and honey.

Maple syrup contains a number of minerals in trace amounts including calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and copper, but the only two that are present in appreciable amount are manganese, an important cofactor for several enzymes necessary for energy production and antioxidant defences, and zinc, essential for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of these minerals may lower white blood cell counts and subsequently reduce immune responses. Honey has fewer minerals than maple syrup, but again, there are much better sources of minerals than either of these sweeteners. This is true of vitamins as well. Maple syrup contains several B vitamins as well as vitamins A but in very small amounts.

Antibacterial properties

Recent research has found more than 20 compounds in maple syrup that are associated with health—many of these are antioxidants that are believed to have antibacterial, anti-cancer and anti-diabetic properties. A scientist who specializes in medicinal plant research notes it makes sense that maple syrup contains antioxidant properties, because it comes from sap located just inside the tree bark which receives constant sunlight. Again, to be realistic, one would have to consume large amounts of maple syrup to achieve antioxidant benefits which is not a good idea considering sucrose and calorie content.

However, pure maple syrup is definitely a cut above regular pancakes syrups found in the grocery stores. It is more expensive because while the only processing it undergoes is evaporation, it takes 32 to 40 litres of sap to produce one litre of pure syrup. Most other syrups are whipped up by boiling sugar and water, and they contain ingredients such as cellulose gum, benzoate and sodium hexametaphosphate as preservatives and thickening agents. And while you might not ingest maple syrup for the nutrients, you will indeed consume negligible amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants while enjoying a lovely maple flavour.