Maple syrup is a popular natural sweetener that is claimed to be healthier and more nutritious than sugar.
However, it’s important to look at the science behind some of these assertions.
This article explains whether maple syrup is healthy or unhealthy.
Maple syrup is made from the circulating fluid, or sap, of sugar maple trees.
It has been consumed for many centuries in North America. Over 80% of the world's supply is now produced in the province of Quebec in eastern Canada.
There are two main steps to maple syrup production:
- A hole is drilled in a maple tree so that its sap pours into a container.
- The sap is boiled until most of the water evaporates, leaving a thick, sugary syrup, which is then filtered to remove impurities.
The final product can be used to sweeten many dishes.
Summary Maple syrup is made by tapping sugar maple trees, then boiling the sap to produce a thick syrup. Most maple syrup is produced in eastern Canada.
There are several different grades of maple syrup characterized by color, though classification can vary between countries.
In the US, maple syrup is classified as either Grade A or B, where Grade A is further categorized into three groups — Light Amber, Medium Amber and Dark Amber — and Grade B is the darkest available syrup (1).
The darker syrups are made from sap extracted later in the harvest season. These have a stronger maple flavor and are usually used for baking, whereas the lighter ones are drizzled directly atop foods like pancakes.
When buying maple syrup, make sure to read food labels carefully. This way, you’ll get real maple syrup — not just maple-flavored syrup, which can be loaded with refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Summary There are several different grades of maple syrup based on color. Grade B is darkest and boasts the strongest maple flavor.
What sets maple syrup apart from refined sugar is its minerals and antioxidants.
Around 1/3 cup (80 ml) of pure maple syrup contains (2):
- Calcium: 7% of the RDI
- Potassium: 6% of the RDI
- Iron: 7% of the RDI
- Zinc: 28% of the RDI
- Manganese: 165% of the RDI
Though maple syrup provides a decent amount of some minerals, especially manganese and zinc, keep in mind that it also packs plenty of sugar.
Maple syrup is about 2/3 sucrose, or table sugar — 1/3 cup (80 ml) supplies around 60 grams of sugar.
The fact that maple syrup contains some minerals is a very poor reason to eat it, given its high sugar content. Most people already eat copious amounts of sugar.
The best way to get these minerals is to eat whole foods. If you eat a balanced diet, then your chance of lacking any of these nutrients is very low.
In addition, the high sugar content may affect your blood sugar levels — though maple syrup may be a better option than regular sugar in that regard.
The glycemic index of maple syrup is around 54. In comparison, table sugar has a glycemic index of around 65 (6).
This implies that maple syrup raises blood sugar slower than regular sugar.
Summary Maple syrup contains a small amount of minerals, such as manganese and zinc. However, it is very high in sugar.
Oxidative damage, which is caused by free radicals, is believed to be among the mechanisms behind aging and many diseases.
Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage, potentially lowering your risk of some diseases.
Darker syrups like Grade B supply more of these beneficial antioxidants than lighter ones (8).
However, the total antioxidant content is still low compared to the large amounts of sugar.
One study estimated that replacing all the refined sugar in the average diet with alternative sweeteners like maple syrup would increase your total antioxidant intake as much as eating a single serving of nuts or berries (9).
If you need to lose weight or improve your metabolic health, you would be better off skipping sweeteners altogether instead of going for maple syrup.
Summary Though there are a number of antioxidants in maple syrup, they don’t offset its high dose of sugar.
Numerous potentially beneficial substances have been observed in maple syrup.
Some of these compounds are not present in the maple tree, forming instead when the sap is boiled to form syrup.
One of these is quebecol, named after the maple-producing province of Quebec.
However, human studies to confirm these health effects found in test-tube studies are lacking.
Moreover, keep in mind that most maple syrup studies — which are often accompanied by misleading headlines — are sponsored by maple syrup producers.
Summary Maple syrup boasts other compounds that may benefit health — but most studies are misleading and sponsored by the maple syrup industry.
Even though maple syrup does contain some nutrients and antioxidants, it is also very high in sugar.
Calorie for calorie, maple syrup is a very poor source of nutrients compared to whole foods like vegetables, fruits and unprocessed animal foods.
Replacing refined sugar with pure, quality maple syrup is likely to yield a net health benefit, but adding it to your diet will just make things worse.
Maple syrup is a less bad version of sugar, much like coconut sugar. It cannot objectively be labeled healthy.
If you consume it, it’s best to do so in moderation — as with all sweeteners.