Maple syrup as a cancer fighter? That’s what a press release from the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers claims. “Recent studies have shown Canadian maple syrup to contain more than twenty antioxidant compounds which are known to slow cancerous growth.” Now, I like pure maple syrup on my pancakes. But suggesting that it fights cancer is pure marketing hype. One of the studies that generated the seductive headline was carried out by Navindra Seeram at the University of Rhode Island, funded to the tune of $115,000 by the Quebec maple syrup industry. Seeram carried out a commendable analysis of maple syrup and found a number of compounds that had not been detected before. This is really no great surprise. The composition of maple syrup has been extensively investigated and found to consist of a mixture of numerous compounds, many of which have been identified. Just the flavor of the syrup is a blend of some thirty-four compounds. There are also amino acids, malic acid, fumaric acid, amines and various phenolic compounds, many of which have antioxidant activity. But all of these are present in very small amounts, measured in parts per million.
Maple syrup is basically a concentrated sugar solution, containing 68% sucrose and 31.7% water. It is made by boiling down the sap tapped from the bark of maple trees in a process virtually unchanged since it was developed by natives long before European settlers ever came to America. Of course back then nobody worried about environmental issues. Today it’s a different story. Boiling is certainly not an environmentally friendly business. You have to burn about 50 liters of natural gas to produce one tablespoon of syrup. Finding some antioxidants that have not been previously detected is nothing more than a testimonial to improved laboratory techniques. It is true that some of these compounds can slow the multiplication of cancer cells in a Petri dish, but that is a long, long way from showing that the trace amounts found in maple syrup have any effect on human health.
The whole concept of antioxidants as miraculous disease fighters is overblown, especially in the context of their presence in what amounts to a concentrated sugar solution. All berries, fruits and grains contain a variety of antioxidants and deliver them unaccompanied by the staggering amount of sugar found in maple syrup. If we were to derive a significant amount of antioxidants from maple syrup we would have to be guzzling gallons of the stuff on a regular basis. The greatest beneficiaries of this exercise would be dentists and marketers of diet products. Seeram also identified abscisic acid in maple syrup, a compound that was trumpeted in the press release as “a potent weapon against metabolic syndrome and diabetes.” Finding abscicic acid in maple syrup is not news. It is a plant hormone that can be found in virtually any plant, ranging from cotton to sycamore. Interestingly enough, abscicic acid also stimulates the release of insulin from the pancreas, but not in the amounts found in maple syrup. Any suggestion that a concentrated sugar solution may help diabetics is misguided. Maple syrup is a pleasant occasional sweet condiment but any attempt to sweeten it further with claims of health benefits amounts to misleading marketing. When an industry is being squeezed, imaginative marketing flares. And the $225 million maple syrup industry is being squeezed by the $11 billion imitation maple syrup industry that is based on corn syrup flavoured with compounds such as sotolon, extracted from fenugreek. Its vapid taste does not approach the delightful flavor of real maple syrup. And superior taste is an honest way to promote Canadian maple syrup without feeding the “health food” frenzy. And tell me, did anyone think that a researcher given a $115,000 grant to study maple syrup would not come up with something that the industry could hype?