When you go out for breakfast you may have noticed that some restaurants offer real maple syrup while others offer pancake syrup. Even better, some offer toppings like maple pancake syrup or something similar. Are there really any health benefits to be gained by choosing real maple syrup instead of these other options?
What Is Maple Syrup?
Maple syrup is a real food that is produced from the sap of a maple tree. There are three different varieties of maple tree in North America that can produce syrup; the sugar maple, the red maple, and the black maple.
Maple trees are tapped in late winter and early spring between February and April. When tapped, sap drains from the tree as a clear liquid with a low sugar content.
Sap is collected and then boiled until much of the water content has been removed. The end product is concentrated maple syrup that is bottled, shipped to stores, and available for us to purchase. It takes 40 or more gallons of tree sap to produce one gallon of syrup.
How is Maple Syrup Different from Pancake Syrup
Pancake syrup is a processed food full of refined sugar. The most popular brands in no particular order include Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Log Cabin and Hungry Jack. Composed of some combination of corn syrup, water, caramel color, sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup and some preservatives, there is really nothing to pancake syrup other than sugar.
I often use regular soda as the quintessential example of an empty calorie food however pancake syrup also qualifies. It is just sugar and water. There are no other nutrients present in pancake syrup.
This is yet another example of the processed food industry creating an artificial version of a natural product then spending millions marketing it. And sadly it has worked. This is a little old but in 2015 the Washington Post conducted a survey and found that 70% of people actually prefer pancake syrups!
Keep reading to learn about the nutritional benefits of real maple syrup and see why you should give it a try.
Maple Syrup Calories
There are 50 calories in one tablespoon of maple syrup. This is the same number of calories in a tablespoon of pancake syrup. All of the calories in both maple and pancake syrup come from sugar. So how much sugar is in a tablespoon of maple syrup?
One tablespoon of table sugar provides 15 calories. Doing some quick math, one tablespoon of maple syrup then contains the caloric equivalent of about three tablespoons of sugar.
If you are not careful you can still add a lot of calories to your breakfast with maple syrup!
What is nice is that maple syrup has a lower glycemic index value compared to pancake syrup. Glycemic index refers to how much an equal serving of a food raises your blood sugar levels after you eat. A lower number means a lower impact on blood sugar. That is a good thing.
Maple Syrup Health Benefits
From a nutritional standpoint maple syrup should never be called a super food. However, in addition to a lower glycemic index, maple syrup provides measurable amounts of several valuable nutrients and antioxidants. That is more than can be said of pancake syrup.
A tablespoon of maple syrup contains a small amount of calcium, potassium, and magnesium. It also provides about 25% of our daily needs of manganese which functions as antioxidant (protective against inflammation) in our bodies. Additionally you will get about 10% of your daily needs of riboflavin, a B vitamin needed for cell growth and proper function.
Maple syrup is also a good source of zinc; one tablespoon provides about 5% of the daily value. Zinc is helpful for our immune system, wound healing, and growth and development.
As syrup gets darker there does tend to be a higher concentration of nutrients while the calorie value stays the same. The increase in nutrients is not significant to the point that you should only choose the darker varieties unless that is the flavor you really enjoy. Just something to be aware of.
If you have ever wondered why there are different shades of maple syrup on store shelves it is because syrups are graded. This grading depends on when the syrup is produced. Let’s learn more about maple syrup grades now.
Maple Syrup Grades
All maple syrups are graded based on their color and flavor profiles. Ranging from lighter to darker you may see golden, amber, dark, and very dark syrups. The lighter the color the more subtle the flavor.
The color of the syrup affects the flavor profile but has a very minimal impact on the health benefits or nutritional content. Sugar content and calorie value of maple syrup stays about the same throughout the season.
Syrup color changes as the weather warms. Lighter syrups are produced earlier in the season in February. Then syrups get darker as temperatures warm toward the end of the season in April.
A grading system was developed to help us understand the different varieties of maple syrup. Here is a brief description of each grade and how to use each grade of syrup.
Grade A Golden Color
Golden syrup is produced at the beginning of the maple syrup season. It is light in color and mild in taste. Best uses are as a topping on desserts, making maple flavored candy, or poured over your favorite pancakes or waffles.
Grade A Amber Color
Amber color syrup has a smooth flavor and is probably the one you think of in terms of flavor when you think of maple syrup. It has a classic maple syrup taste and goes perfectly with your favorite breakfast foods.
Grade A Dark Color
Dark syrup is made later in the season and takes more sap to produce one gallon hence the color gets more concentrated. This grade is great for cooking and use in recipes like maple roasted brussel sprouts. Dark syrup is also a popular choice for breakfast foods with a stronger but still enjoyable taste.
Grade A Very Dark Color
Very dark syrup is produced at the end of the season and has a strong maple flavor. This grade is used mostly by food manufacturers and chefs due to it’s strong taste. It is best for baking or use as a flavoring in recipes.
Organic Maple Syrup
You may see organic and non-organic maple syrup on store shelves. This designation does not affect the health benefits of maple syrup. Unlike fruits and vegetables, it does not take a whole lot of pesticides to grow a maple tree.
Think of the trees growing in your yard or down the street. Besides trimming and cleaning up the leaves they are fairly low maintenance.
To be certified organic, maple syrup producers must undergo an additional inspection and have enhanced record keeping. They must avoid the use of pesticides or chemicals in the general area of their maple trees. Tree maintenance is also taken into consideration in organic programs.
This is a great resource from the point of view of a maple syrup producer if you are interested in learning more about the organic certification process.
The Bottom Line – Choose Maple Syrup for the Health Benefits
Maple syrup is far more than just a sugary flavoring to be add to your pancakes. There are numerous health benefits including beneficial nutrients and lower effects on blood sugar that make maple syrup superior to pancake syrup.
Do be mindful of the calories as maple syrup is a high calorie food that can still effect your weight loss efforts. When I measure how much I use on my breakfast I find it ranges between two and four tablespoons. This adds between 100 and 200 calories to my breakfast.
While maple syrup also increases the nutrients consumed with breakfast remember to be careful and measure if you are not sure! The best way to assess how much of an impact maple syrup has on your calorie and nutrient intake is to track your foods using a program like cronometer.
Is maple syrup something you should include in your diet if you are already using pancake syrup? Absolutely. Do you have to? No. Is it a super food? No. It is a natural sweetener.
Generally maple syrup will be more expensive than pancake syrup. Pancake syrup costs about $0.12 per ounce. Maple syrup can be $0.50 per ounce or more. Many families use maple syrup once or twice per week. If you do not use maple syrup very often it is worth the extra cost both to remove another processed food from your diet. And you increase your intake of beneficial nutrients at the same time.
Next time you need syrup and head out to the store, try buying an amber or golden colored syrup to start. Their mild flavors are a great introduction to real maple syrup and once you try it I bet you will never go back to pancake syrup again!