Local Journalism Initiative
Dark maple syrup may soon enjoy a new fate. Long considered less attractive and therefore less valuable, research now shows it’s healthier, in addition to being popular in many flavour-rich recipes.
Quebec’s Centre Acer research institute found that light syrup—golden, as it’s now described in Quebec’s four-grade system—has three times fewer antioxidants and four times fewer polyphenols.
“This data is significant in a context where many consumers are turning to maple syrup as a sweetener in order to benefit from its nutritional properties, such as antioxidants and polyphenols,” reported the Terre de Chez Nous weekly newspaper in February 2021. “In addition, light syrup…generally gives less flavour than amber, dark, or very dark syrup.”
The Terre de Chez Nous article was published a year after the Centre Acer reported on its research at a maple syrup conference I attended in Lake Megantic in winter 2020. And the Quebec-government-funded research centre has since published follow-up studies to show how producers can still get a dark, flavourful syrup despite their high-tech systems.
The problem, according to the research, is that pre-concentration techniques such as reverse osmosis and nanofiltration help remove flavour and nutritional qualities.
But those technologies are now widespread in the industry, saving energy costs—and therefore negative environmental effects—that become significant when producing syrup on a large scale, from tens of thousands of trees in many of today’s sugar bushes.
The industrial producers are therefore encouraged to pre-concentrate less and boil slower to get a darker, healthier syrup—which goes against what was previously prized.
“Syrups produced from ultra-high…concentrated sap had lower concentrations of potassium and polyphenols, a lighter color and distinctive flavor,” the Centre Acer published on its Web site in August last year and in Food Control magazine last January. “This was mainly observed when no modification were (sic) applied to the heating pattern in the evaporator pans. However, syrups produced by modulation of the heating pattern in the evaporator had color, flavor and taste similar to control syrups.”
This trade-off of syrup quality for production efficiency gets no mention on the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers Web site, which features countless articles on the health benefits of maple syrup and sap.
And even some producers send mixed messages by their different preferences and interpretations.
In a recent interview on CBC Radio’s All in a Weekend show, maple syrup producer Geneviève Mercier said she “recommends using golden or amber syrup…for maple-heavy desserts.”
Assuming she was quoted correctly—she was previously a restaurateur—this seems counter-intuitive. By the Maple federation’s own grading, golden syrup has a “delicate taste,” amber a “rich taste,” dark a “robust taste,” and very dark a “strong taste.”
The positive side of our highly developed maple industry in Quebec—with its producers’ federation, research centres, and refined public interest—is a better understanding of the qualities of maple syrup and the effects of different production techniques. Not all maple syrups are equal—even beyond the colour and flavour differences.
And once again we learn that the cheaper a food is produced (usually reflected in cheaper prices in the grocery store), the poorer its taste and nutritional values tend to be.
Cheap carrots mass produced for a large grocery chain are nothing like carrots from your nearest small-scale, health- and environment-conscious farmer. The same applies to beef, chicken, eggs, and other foods.
Happily, the Eastern Townships is full of such farmers, and according to the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, many consumers can still be convinced to buy more from them.
Scott Stevenson farms and writes at his home in Newport, Quebec.