Maple Syrup: Healthy or Unhealthy?
One of the more popular sweeteners today is maple syrup.
It is a 100% natural sweetener that is claimed to be more nutritious and healthier than sugar.
There are many claims about maple syrup online and I'd like to separate the facts from the fiction.
Maple syrup is made from the sugary circulating fluid (sap) of maple trees.
It has been consumed for many centuries in North America... since the times of Native Americans.
Over 80% of the world's supply is now produced in Canada.
Maple syrup is made in a natural 2-step process:
- A hole is drilled in the maple tree. Then the sugary circulating fluid leaks out and is collected into a container.
- The sugary fluid is boiled until most of the water evaporates, leaving a thick sugary syrup, which is then filtered to remove impurities.
If you want to see how incredibly simple it is to make maple syrup, then check out this cool video (opens in new tab) of a guy making his own from wild maple trees.
Bottom Line: Maple syrup is made by evaporating the sugary circulating fluid (sap) from maple trees, leaving a thick syrup. It has been consumed for many centuries in North America.
There are several different "grades" of maple syrup, depending on the color.
The exact way they are classified can vary between countries.
In the United States, maple syrup is either classified as grade A or grade B (1).
- Grade A is further categorized into 3 groups: Light Amber, Medium Amber and Dark Amber.
- Grade B is the darkest of them all.
The main difference between them, is that the darker syrups are made from sap that is extracted later in the harvesting season.
The dark syrups have a stronger maple flavor and are usually used for baking or in recipes, while the lighter ones are rather used directly as syrups... for example on pancakes.
If you're going to buy maple syrup, then make sure to get actual maple syrup, not just maple-flavored syrup... which can be loaded with refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
As with any other food, make sure to read the label.
Bottom Line: There are several different grades of maple syrup, depending on the color. Grade B is the darkest, with the strongest maple flavor.
The main thing that sets maple syrup apart from refined sugar, is the fact that it also contains some minerals and antioxidants.
100 grams of maple syrup contain (2):
- Calcium: 7% of the RDA.
- Potassium: 6% of the RDA.
- Iron: 7% of the RDA.
- Zinc: 28% of the RDA.
- Manganese: 165% of the RDA.
True, maple syrup does contain a decent amount of some minerals, especially manganese and zinc, but keep in mind that it also contains a whole bunch of sugar.
Maple syrup is about 2/3rds sucrose (as in table sugar) and a 100 grams of it therefore supply around 67 grams of sugar.
Really... sugar can be seriously harmful. Consumed in excess, it is believed to be among the leading causes of some of the world's biggest health problems, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease (3, 4, 5).
The fact that maple syrup contains some minerals is a very poor reason to eat it, given the high sugar content. Most people are already eating way too much sugar.
The best way to get these minerals is to eat real foods. If you eat a balanced diet of plants and animals, then your chances of lacking any of these minerals is very low.
But if you're going to eat a sugar-based sweetener anyway, then replacing refined sugar in recipes with an identical amount of maple syrup will cut the total sugar content by a third.
The glycemic index of maple syrup seems to be around 54, compared to table sugar which has a glycemic index of around 65 (6).
This is a good thing and implies that maple syrup raises blood sugar slower than regular sugar.
Bottom Line: Maple syrup contains a small amount of minerals, especially manganese and zinc. However, it is also very high in sugar (about 67%).
Oxidative damage is believed to be among the mechanisms behind ageing and many diseases.
It consists of undesirable chemical reactions that involve free radicals... that is, molecules with unstable electrons.
Antioxidants are substances that can neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage, potentially lowering the risk of some diseases.
Several studies have found that maple syrup is a decent source of antioxidants. One study found 24 different antioxidant substances in maple syrup (7).
The darker syrups (like Grade B) contain more of these beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups (8).
However, same as with the minerals, the total amount of antioxidants is still low compared to the large amounts of sugar.
One study estimates that replacing all the refined sugar in the average diet with "alternative" sweeteners like maple syrup will increase the total antioxidant load of the diet similar to eating a single serving of nuts or berries (9).
If you need to lose weight or improve your metabolic health, then you would be better off skipping caloric sweeteners altogether instead of going for a "less bad" version of sugar.
Bottom Line: There are a number of antioxidant substances found in maple syrup, but the amount is still low compared to the large amount of sugar.
Numerous potentially beneficial substances have been found in maple syrup.
Some of these compounds are not present in the maple tree, but they form when the sugary fluid is boiled to form the syrup.
One of these is a compound called quebecol, named after Quebec, a province in Canada that produces large amounts of maple syrup.
But really... these test tube studies are almost meaningless when it comes to human health. They tell us absolutely nothing about what happens in a living, breathing person.
Keep in mind that almost all of these studies (which often made it into the media with misleading headlines) were sponsored by Canadian maple syrup producers.
Even though maple syrup does contain some nutrients and antioxidants, it is also very high in sugar.
Calorie for calorie (and sugar gram for sugar gram), maple syrup is a very poor source of nutrients compared to "real" 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.
As with all sugar-based sweeteners, if you're going to eat it, make sure to do so in moderation only.