Maple syrup is now among the most commonly consumed natural sweeteners worldwide. What are the benefits of maple syrup? This sweetener does more than make your pancakes taste sweet. It surprisingly has health benefits, including providing certain protective phytochemicals.
Similar to the contrast between whole and refined grains, unrefined natural sweeteners that are used as sugar substitutes contain higher levels of beneficial nutrients, antioxidants and enzymes compared to white table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. When used in appropriate amounts, maple syrup nutrition benefits can include the ability to lower inflammation, supply nutrients and better manage blood sugar, all while helping to make recipes taste great.
Because of its natural harvesting method and history as a healing sweetener, this is one reason why today many people still choose maple syrup as their sweetener of choice, even those following low-sugar diets like the Paleo diet, for example.
What Is Maple Syrup?
Maple syrup is produced by boiling down sap collected from the sugar maple tree (species name Acer saccharum), which include several species commonly known as the sugar maple, red maple or black maple tree. Sucrose is the most prevalent type of sugar that is derived from maple syrup trees. At least 66 percent of the sugar in maple syrup must be sucrose in order for it to be considered pure.
In most plants, the sugar isn’t easily extracted from the plants roots, stalks or leaves (such as in sugar cane plants) without undergoing mechanical and chemical processes. In the case of maple trees, however, sap is easily gathered.
Where is maple syrup made? Some of the best quality syrup in the world is maple syrup from Canada. Maple syrup production is considered an important economic activity in Northeastern North America.
Today, Canada supplies over 71 percent of the world’s maple syrup. In the U.S., the largest-producing state of maple syrup is Vermont. Maple syrup has been made in Vermont for hundreds of years. In fact, some large maple trees in Vermont that are still suppliers of sap today are over 200 years old.
Maple tree syrup has been used for many centuries. In fact, it is one of the oldest forms of sweeteners there is. It was used by Native Americans living in North America thousands of years ago.
Maple syrup was first collected and used by indigenous people before they introduced it to early European settlers, who figured out ways to quickly improve the technology needed to gather more. Sap from various maple trees first started being processed into syrup long before European settlers even arrived in America.
Medicinal uses of maple syrup include combining it with other herbs (such as juniper berry, catnip and ginger), teas, lemon juice and/or apple cider vinegar to improve insulin sensitivity, help combat metabolic disorders such as diabetes, improve digestion, and increase immunity against colds and respiratory issues.
Types of Maple Syrup
Maple syrup prices vary depending on the grade and place of origin. Many maple syrups sold in stores are basically imposters or maple syrup “flavored” sugars that are highly refined. In order to get all of these benefits of maple syrup nutrition, you need to be careful to buy the right kind.
Here’s what you need to know about maple syrup grades:
- Carefully check the ingredient label to make sure pure maple syrup is the only (or primary) ingredient, not refined cane/beet sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
- It’s also smart to buy organic maple syrup whenever possible. This ensures the trees weren’t treated with any chemicals.
- In regard to maple syrup grades, all types of pure maple syrup are either classified as “grade A” or “grade B.” Both grade A and grade B maple syrups can be good choices, as long as they are pure and free of preservatives, artificial dyes and flavors.
- The biggest difference between maple syrup grades is that grade B maple syrup is darker in color and more concentrated, so it’s usually used to cook with instead of drizzling onto foods. Some research also shows that grade B syrup tends to be richer in antioxidants than grade A. This means that whenever possible, you probably want to select darker, grade B maple syrup.
- Most maple syrup bought in stores is grade A, the lighter type used to sweeten pancakes. There are also several different types of grade A syrups, which range in color from light to dark amber. The darker the syrup, the later it was harvested in the year and the stronger the flavor is.
- More recently, the grade called “Grade A Very Dark” has been used to indicate when maple syrup has a strong taste and amber color. This type is much darker than most grade A syrups because it is tapped toward the end of the sugaring season.
One tablespoon (20 grams) of maple syrup contains approximately:
- Calories: 52
- Total Carbohydrates: 13.4 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Sugar: 12.1 g
- Total Fat: 0.01 g
- Protein: 0 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 2.4 mg (0.1% DV*)
- Manganese: 0.58 mg (25% DV*)
- Zinc: 0.294 mg (3% DV*)
*Daily Value: Percentages are based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day.
1. Contains Numerous Antioxidants
Maple syrup nutrition is impressive when it comes to supplying protective antioxidants. In fact, the medical journal Pharmaceutical Biology revealed that pure maple syrup contains up to 24 different antioxidants.
According to studies comparing the total antioxidant content of natural sweeteners to refined sugar products (like white sugar or corn syrup), there are substantial differences between different products. Refined sugar, corn syrup and agave nectar contain minimal antioxidant activity, while maple syrup, dark and blackstrap molasses, brown sugar, and raw honey have been shown to have higher antioxidant capacity.
The antioxidants found in maple syrup are mostly in the form of phenolic compounds. Phenolic compounds are found in a variety of plant foods — including berries, nuts and whole grains — and are considered to have significant benefits when it comes to the prevention of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
They are capable of reducing free radical damage that can cause inflammation and contribute to the formation of various chronic diseases. Dark, grade B maple syrup typically contains more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.
Some of the primary antioxidants found in maple syrup include benzoic acid, gallic acid, cinnamic acid and various flavanols, like catechin, epicatechin, rutin and quercetin. While most are found at low concentrations, others are present in higher quantities. Thus, it’s possible that the benefits of these antioxidants might counteract some of the downsides to consuming the syrup’s high quantity of sugar.
2. Has a Lower Score on the Glycemic Index
Studies suggest that the maple syrup may have a lower glycemic index than sucrose, including research conducted on rats. Maple syrup also is a natural source of allulose, a simple sugar that doesn’t affect blood sugar.
Refined sugar, and in general refined carbohydrates that contain little fiber, are known to be rapidly metabolized by the liver. This causes a “sugar high,” followed by a quick “sugar crash.” Even worse, consuming too much sugar quickly spikes your blood sugar and raises insulin levels. Over time, that can lead to lower insulin response and problems managing blood glucose.
3. May Help Reduce Excessive Inflammation
Because maple syrup nutrition supplies inflammation-reducing polyphenol antioxidants, it can be considered part of a healthy diet that’s helpful in preventing certain diseases — such as neurodegenerative diseases, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease or heart disease.
Many studies have found that phenolic-containing natural products — including certain fruits, berries, spices, nuts, green tea, olive oil and syrup — have neuroprotective effects. Maple syrup’s plant-based compounds can help protect the brain by reducing oxidative stress.
4. May Help Protect Against Cancer
While some evidence shows that to a certain degree sugar can cause cancer or at least contribute to it, maple syrup seems to a much less harmful sweetener. This is due to the presence of antioxidants in the syrup that can protect cells from DNA damage and mutation.
Some studies have even found that dark maple syrup can demonstrate inhibitory effects on colorectal cancer cell growth and invasion. Findings have led researchers to believe that dark-color maple syrup may inhibit cell proliferation through suppression of AKT activation. This makes concentrated syrup a potential “phytomedicine” for gastrointestinal cancer treatment.
5. Helps Protect Skin Health
Many people swear by using maple syrup topically, directly on their skin. Similarly to raw honey, it may be able to help to lower skin inflammation, redness, blemishes and dryness. Combined with raw milk, yogurt, rolled oats and raw honey, this natural mixture applies to the skin as a mask can hydrate skin while reducing bacteria and signs of irritation.
6. Alternative to Sugar for Improved Digestion
Consuming high levels of refined sugar can contribute to candida, IBS, leaky gut syndrome and other digestive system disorders. Most artificial sweeteners also cause symptoms of indigestion, including gas, bloating, cramping and constipation.
To keep the digestive tract in healthier shape and free from chemicals and the damage done by a high-sugar diet, maple syrup can be a much better alternative to use in baked goods, yogurt, oatmeal or smoothies.
7. Supplies Important Vitamins and Minerals
It’s true that maple syrup is high in sugar in the form of sucrose, but it also contains various other components, such as oligosaccharides, polysaccharides, organic acids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
It also contains zinc and manganese in fairly high amounts. Zinc can help fight illness and improve immunity since it keeps your level of white blood cells up, while manganese plays a role a crucial role in fat and carbohydrate metabolism, calcium absorption, blood sugar regulation, brain and nerve function.
8. Healthier Alternative to Artificial Sweeteners
If you typically use artificial sweeteners or refined sugar products like Splenda, sucralose, agave, aspartame or sugar, you should think about switching these out for maple syrup and raw honey as soon as possible. There’s now some concern that artificial sweeteners, while they may be calorie-free, may be tied to numerous health problems, including weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, short-term memory loss and much more.
It’s possible for existing symptoms and even illnesses to worsen by repeatedly using artificial sweeteners over time. They also show unfavorable results when it comes to weight loss. It’s very possible to form an addiction to artificial sweeteners used in many diet or light foods, since they affect your food cravings and your ability to manage your body’s signs of hunger and fullness.
Maple syrup isn’t linked to any of those health problems. Plus, it triggers more satisfaction because of its natural sweet taste.
9. May Enhance Antibiotic Effects
Antibiotics may seem like quick, easy solutions to a number of different illnesses. However, as new research continues to be released, it becomes harder to ignore the dangers and downfalls of excessive antibiotic use — including the creation of superbugs.
When researcher Nathalie Tufenkji and her team investigated extracts from maple syrup in conjunction with antibiotics ciprofloxacin and carbenicillin, they observed the same antimicrobial effect with upward of 90 percent less antibiotics. In other words, the maple syrup extract helped the antibiotics work better. How? Researchers found that the extract increased the permeability of the bacteria, helping the antibiotics into the interior of bacterial cells.
“There are other products out there that boost antibiotic strength, but this may be the only one that comes from nature,” Tufenkji said.
More research and testing for allergic reactions are still needed before this could become part of a medical protocol, but Tufenkji’s research suggests hope against antibiotic resistance in the future.
Maple Syrup vs. Other Natural Sweeteners
Is maple syrup better for you than sugar, honey and molasses?
Compared to refined (or “table”) cane sugar that offers absolutely no nutrients, maple syrup contains some important antioxidants and minerals, such as zinc and manganese. When we do a side-by-side comparison of sugar nutrition and maple syrup nutrition, we see that they have a few things in common. However, there are also some things that definitely make maple syrup more favorable.
Both are made of about two-thirds sucrose, but maple syrup supplies less sugar overall to your diet plus more nutrients. The glycemic index score of maple syrup is about 54, compared to a score of about 65 for regular cane sugar. This means that one benefit of maple syrup nutrition is that it impacts your blood sugar levels a bit less drastically than table sugar does. This syrup also supplies some trace minerals and antioxidants, while sugar lacks both of these.
Another factor that makes these two sweeteners very different is how they are made. Maple syrup is derived from the sap of maple trees. Unlike refined cane sugar — which undergoes a long, complex process in order to be condensed in crystalized sugar — maple syrup is a much more natural, unrefined product. For example, sugar cane stalks and beets are mechanically harvested, cleaned, washed, milled, extracted, juiced, filtered, purified, vacuumed and condensed — all before they even become sugar crystals!
Is maple syrup or honey healthier? Real, preferably raw honey makes a great maple syrup substitute because it also contains some nutrients and enzymes. Raw honey is a pure, unfiltered and unpasteurized sweetener made by bees from the nectar of flowers.
Unlike processed honey, raw honey does not get robbed of its incredible nutritional value. For example, raw honey contains bee pollen, which is known to ward off infections and help provide natural allergy relief.
Blackstrap molasses is the dark, viscous molasses that remains after maximum extraction of sugar from raw sugar cane. In the study mentioned above that compared antioxidant content of various refined and natural sweeteners, molasses was found to have the highest concentration of antioxidants. Molasses has a moderate glycemic load (lower than refined sugar) and contains vitamin B6, manganese, magnesium, potassium, iron and selenium.
How Its Made
Wondering how to make maple syrup? With the right equipment, gathering maple syrup from maple trees is actually not very complicated, although it takes good timing and some patience.
Sugar is made by the maple tree during summer and is stored as starch in the tree’s roots. Then during the winter months, “taps” are inserted into the trees to harvest the sap. After the tap hole is drilled, a spout with either a bucket and hook or tube is attached. Traditionally, buckets were used to gather syrup, but a modern technique uses tubes.
When spring comes and the temperature gets warmer, a pattern of freezing and thawing temperatures builds up pressure within the trees. This causes the sap to flow from the tap holes into the buckets.
The buckets are traditionally gathered by hand and added to large tanks, where some of the water is evaporated and removed to produce a richer syrup. And that’s it — the process is that simple.
A typical “sugaring” season lasts four to six weeks, usually through March and April in the Northern Hemisphere. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make each gallon of maple syrup. The length of the production season is linked to daily variation in temperature.
How to Use
Maple syrup is a heat-stable sweetener (unlike honey) that works well in many types of recipes. You can use it numerous ways, including in marinades, dressings, glazes, baked recipes or simply on its own. It’s even a good alternative to white sugar in your morning coffee or tea.
When using maple syrup in place of table sugar in baked goods, replace the regular sugar content with the same amount of maple syrup, but reduce the amount of liquid the recipe calls for by about a half-cup. This gives you enough of a sweet taste without adding too much moisture and diminishing the texture you’re looking for.
In smoothies, salad dressings or other liquids, you can simply replace honey, sugar or agave nectar with maple syrup instead.
Risks and Side Effects
While maple syrup does contain some nutrients and benefits over white sugar, it doesn’t supply a very high level of important vitamins or minerals compared to other whole foods like vegetables, fruits, and high-quality proteins and fats.
Maple syrup can make a good natural sweetener choice when the serving size is kept small and eaten in combination with other whole foods. Overall, sugar should never take up more than 10 percent of your daily calories.
Is maple syrup bad for certain people, such as diabetics? Yes, it can be, as maple syrup is made up of carbohydrates in the form of sugars without any fiber. Therefore, it can trigger swings in blood sugar and insulin levels, and diabetic or pre-diabetic people may suffer side effects from maple syrup consumption.
- Maple syrup is produced by boiling down sap collected from the sugar maple tree (species name Acer saccharum). It’s now one of the most commonly consumed natural sweeteners worldwide.
- While it is high in sugar (specifically sucrose), it’s a good alternative to refined cane sugar because it provides certain phytonutrients and vitamins.
- Health benefits of this sweet condiment include providing antioxidants (especially phenolic compounds), having a lower glycemic score than sugar, protecting against cancer, fighting inflammation, and potentially enhancing antibiotic effects.