Maple Syrup: Did You Know?

maple syrup

Maple syrup is one of nature’s most distinctive sweeteners, with a complex flavor unmatched by any other food. Made from a relatively simple process of tapping maple trees and boiling down the watery sap to concentrate it, maple syrup was used for hundreds—if not thousands—of years by Indigenous Americans, who later shared their methods with European settlers. Today, maple syrup is prized and consumed all over the world, although the United States and Canada still produce the vast majority.

Despite being a common pantry staple, maple syrup is far from ordinary! In fact, this sweetener is swimming in little-known facts and health benefits. Here are just a few of the historical and nutritional features that make maple syrup so unique.

The origin of maple syrup is steeped in legend

The first written record of maple syrup occurred in 1606, when a French author named Marc Lescarbot described the Micmac Indians collecting and distilling the sap from maple trees. [1] However, nobody really knows how maple syrup was first discovered, or who first began collecting this sweet delight.

In fact, the origin of maple syrup is the subject of numerous legends and mythologies among North American tribes—all with their own spin on how this sweetener came to be.

Per one tale, it was discovered when someone watched a squirrel scamper up a maple tree, bite into a branch, and drink from the outpouring liquid—revealing, for the first time, the cache of sweet sap stored inside these trees. [2]

According to an Ojibwe legend, a time once existed where maple trees were oozing ready-to-eat syrup, rather than the watery sap we see today. Fearing that people would become lazy if maple syrup was too easy to obtain, Manabush—fabled grandson of the earth goddess Nokomis—climbed into the maple trees and filled them with water, thereby diluting the sugar they held. This ensured that anyone wanting to harvest maple syrup would need to first cut wood, build a fire, and then spend nights boiling the sap. [2]

Meanwhile, a legend from the Micmac tribe tells of an elder woman who went to collect maple sap, put it into a pot to warm up, and then fell asleep—only to find once she awoke that the sap had turned into delicious golden syrup. [3]

The Algonquin and Iroquois people have a shared legend, in which the tribal chief threw his tomahawk at a maple tree, causing sap to ooze from the gash left in the bark. The chief’s wife then used the sap in lieu of water to cook a meal of moose or venison—only to discover the boiled-down liquid was sweet and delicious. [3]

Whatever the true origin of maple syrup is, we’ll likely never know!

Maple syrup contains at least 24 antioxidants

Antioxidants are compounds that protect the body from unstable molecules called free radicals. These molecules steal electrons from nearby cells, in turn causing DNA damage, inducing oxidative stress, and contributing to diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and more. Antioxidants are able to provide electrons to free radicals so that the body’s healthy cells are spared.

Not surprisingly, numerous studies have linked a high intake of antioxidant-rich foods with better health outcomes, disease protection, and reduced risk of mortality. [4] [5]

While most refined and artificial sweeteners are devoid of antioxidants, maple syrup is teeming with them. In fact, at least 24 different antioxidants have been identified in maple syrup. [6] The best-studied of these include:

In all, research shows maple syrup has a comparable antioxidant capacity to foods like strawberries and oranges. [16] What’s more, the boiling process that transforms maple sap into maple syrup appears to increase, rather than decrease, its antioxidant levels—a helpful instance of processing creating more health value instead of less! [16]

Maple syrup contains phytonutrients that can help fight inflammation

Excess inflammation in the body has been linked to nearly every chronic disease—making anti-inflammatory foods important candidates for disease prevention and overall health. [17]

Of the dozens of compounds found in maple syrup, many are phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory properties. These phytonutrients help regulate gene expression and signaling pathways within the body, including those involved in the production of major inflammatory molecules. [18] They can also lower the activity of inflammatory enzymes, and prevent inflammation associated with oxidative stress by serving as antioxidants. [19]

For example, one of the phytonutrients in maple syrup is gallic acid, which reduces the release of various inflammatory mediators such as cytokines, adhesion molecules, and chemokines. [20] This phytonutrient targets a key director in the body’s inflammatory cascade, called the nuclear factor-κB signaling pathway. [20] [21] Gallic acid can even reduce the activity of an important inflammatory enzyme called myeloperoxidase, which is known to generate free radicals. [22]

Along with being powerful cancer fighters, the catechins and epicatechins in maple syrup are also highly anti-inflammatory. Not only do these phytonutrients protect against free radical damage that can tip the body into a pro-inflammatory state, they also impact the gastrointestinal environment in ways that reduce chronic inflammation. [11] [23]

In all, the anti-inflammatory phytonutrients in maple syrup could translate to lower risk of autoimmune diseases, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s—all of which have etiologies rooted in excess inflammation. [18]

However, more research is needed to specifically test the effects of maple syrup consumption on these health issues!

(For information on another natural sweetener rich in anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, see Honey: Did You Know?)

Maple syrup contains prebiotic fiber that benefits gut health

Far more than just a series of organs, our gastrointestinal tract is home to a massive network of bacteria and other microorganisms known as the gut microbiome. Through their activities and metabolites, these microorganisms influence nearly every system in the body—including the nervous system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, respiratory system, immune system, digestive system, and more. [24]

Just like our human cells, our gut bacteria need nutrients in order to survive. And one of their primary fuel sources is fermentable carbohydrates, particularly the fibers, starches, and sugars that our digestive enzymes can’t break down. Once these carbohydrates reach the colon, they become food for our hungry microbes.

Substances that feed our gut bacteria are called prebiotics (not to be confused with probiotics, which refers to the beneficial microorganisms themselves).

Maple syrup contains several types of carbohydrate that act as prebiotics. One of those is a fiber called inulin, which selectively feeds lactobacilli and bifidobacteria—two of the most beneficial members of the gut microbiome, with major roles in immune function and gastrointestinal health. [25] [26] [27] Inulin also helps shift the gut microbiome in ways that reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels, thereby impacting the cardiovascular system. [25]

Another prebiotic found in maple syrup is arabinogalactan. [28] This starch-like compound helps increase populations of beneficial bacteria, while reducing levels of potential pathogens such as Clostridium perfringens, a common cause of food poisoning. [29] By altering the balance of bacteria in the gut, arabinogalactan also helps increase the production of immune-modulating metabolites that certain microbes produce, in turn enhancing immune function. [30]

Additional prebiotics have been identified in maple syrup, too: dextrans and rhamnogalacturonans. [25] Although less well-studied for their gut health effects, some dextrans are similar to inulin in their ability to feed beneficial lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, while rhamnogalacturonans can shift the composition of gut bacteria in ways that improve lipid metabolism and reduce obesity—at least in animal experiments! [31] [32] [33] [34]

All that being said, there’s a lack of studies evaluating the effects of maple syrup itself on the gut microbiome of humans. So, while we might expect benefits based on the prebiotic carbohydrates it contains, more research is needed before we can know for sure.

Maple syrup is a notable source of five different nutrients

While refined and artificial sweeteners are generally devoid of micronutrients, maple syrup is a significant source of several essential vitamins and minerals. [35]

Specifically, two tablespoons of maple syrup provides:

In other words, even small amounts of maple syrup can help you meet the daily requirement for some essential vitamins and minerals!

Maple syrup is the only known source of quebecol—a compound that may help kill cancer cells

Among its long list of phytonutrients, maple syrup contains one in particular that hasn’t been found anywhere else in nature: quebecol, named in honor of the Canadian province of Quebec, where most of the world’s maple syrup is produced.

Intriguingly, quebecol doesn’t exist in raw maple sap; it’s formed during the process of boiling the sap into syrup, likely from chemical reactions induced by heat. [41]

Although its discovery was relatively recent, quebecol has already been the subject of some exciting research. Experiments show that quebecol has potent anti-cancer activity against a variety of cancer cell types—including suppressing the growth of breast, ovarian, cervical, and colon cancer cells. [42]

What’s more, quebecol has structural similarities to the drug tamoxifen, widely used for treating hormone-dependent cancers like breast cancer. [42] Researchers speculate that quebecol might be able to deliver some of the cancer-fighting abilities of this drug, but without its unfavorable side effects. Much more research is needed to test this hypothesis!

In addition to its ability to kill cancer cells, quebecol may reduce symptoms of the inflammatory skin condition psoriasis, as well as help treat periodontal disease—both by reducing inflammation in gum tissue, and increasing the activity of bone-building cells that remineralize teeth. [43] [44]

That being said, all of the research on quebecol is extremely preliminary so far. Future studies will help shine more light on this rare compound and how it impacts human health.

Our stance

We believe maple syrup is an outstanding choice when it comes to sweeteners. Like honey, it serves as a functional food, providing benefits far beyond its delicious taste. We can all become more aligned with natural real foods, while still finding a place for the unique joys of sweet treats.


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