What is maple syrup?
Maple syrup is a syrup usually made from the xylem sap of the maple tree. Owing to the high sugar content of the sugar maple tree, the black maple tree, and the red maple tree, these species of tree are predominantly used. There are no authenticated accounts of how maple syrup production and consumption began, however the Indigenous peoples living in northeastern North America were the first groups known to have produced maple syrup and maple sugar. The practice was later adopted by European settlers, when local indigenous peoples showed the arriving colonists how to tap the trunks of certain types of maple.
What are the ingredients in maple syrup?
Traditional maple syrup only uses maple sap, and nothing else. The maple sap is simply tapped directly from the trees, and then taken to a 'sugar house' to be boiled down. The sap is boiled down because for maple syrup to be sold commercially, it must have a minimum sugar density of 66%, and according to Vermont Maple it takes around 40 gallons of maple sap to produce just one gallon of maple syrup! The sugar density combined with long pasteurisation means that unnatural preservatives aren’t required. Most syrups don’t list any ingredients other than the maple itself.
At first glance therefore, maple syrup seems 100% vegan. Hold your pancakes though as reducing the sap to syrup is typically done through boiling, which as well as reducing and caramelising the sap, produces bubbles or foam on top of the syrup. In order to reduce the bubbles, a small amount of fat is added to the liquid. The fat can come from vegetable sources, but is often derived from animals, even in synthetic defoamers. Only a small amount is required (approximately 1 teaspoon per 35 gallons of syrup), however regardless of the type of fat used, a small amount may remain in the final product.
Commercial producers may also use other ingredients to improve the syrup’s appearance, taste, and shelf-life, such as caramel colour, potassium sorbate, sulfur dioxide, sodium benzoate. Whilst these ingredients are all vegan, a typical vegan diet primarily focuses on unrefined and organic food. Note that maple-flavoured "pancake syrup" is not the same as maple syrup as it's made from corn syrup and artificial flavours.
How is maple syrup made?
The production of maple syrup can be broadly categorised into three main stages;
- Tapping the tree
- Boiling the sap
- Filtering the syrup
Tapping the tree
During summer, maple trees convert sugar into starch for storage throughout autumn and winter. Producers wait for the warmer weather when the tree converts ithis stored starch back to sugar. Traditionally syrup makers would bore holes into the trunks of the maple trees, (usually more than one hole per tree), which they then insert wooden spouts into. A wooden bucket would be hung from the end of the spout to collect the sap. These sap filled buckets are then transferred to larger holding vessels (barrels, large pots, or hollowed-out wooden logs), and the buckets returned to the trees, to collect more sap. This process is usually repeated for as long as the flow of sap remains "sweet", with the length of the sugaring season determined by the region specific weather conditions during the thaw period. These days collecting saps can be done either manually using buckets, or mechanically through the use of vacuum pumps.
Boiling the sap
The harvested sap is boiled outside over a fire, or inside a purpose built shelter known as a sugar shack. Open pan evaporation methods have been streamlined and refined since colonial days, but remain primarily unchanged. Sap must first be collected and then boiled down without chemical agents or preservatives in order to obtain pure syrup. The correct boiling temperature is usually determined locally at the place where the syrup is being produced. The temperature is typically 4.1°C over the boiling point of water - which varies with changes in air pressure so must be determined locally. Syrup can be boiled in a gigantic vat over one single heat source, or in smaller batches at more controlled temperatures.
Raw sap straight from the tree is clear like water and only contains about 2% of sugar. The finished syrup must have a density of 66% sugar on the Brix scale, otherwise it’s not allowed to be sold. Sugar density lower than 66% introduces the risk of fermentation and mould growth, too high a density on the other hand will cause unwanted sugar crystals to be created.
Filtering the syrup
Once the correct sugar density has been achieved the syrup in then filtered to remove sugar sand, which are crystals made up of sugar and calcium malate. These crystals are not harmful to eat, however they would produce a "gritty" texture in the syrup if they weren’t filtered out. Filtration improves the taste, colour, and clarity of the syrup.
Is maple syrup good for you?
Maple syrup is high in nutrients like calcium (5% RDA), potassium (5% RDA), manganese, riboflavin, and zinc (18% RDA). It also contains 63 different antioxidants, many of which are unique to maple, and a 60 ml portion has an antioxidant capacity comparable to that of a banana or broccoli. Manganese, is an essential nutrient for muscle recovery, and therefore maple syrup can be a great addition to your diet of you’re active. Maple syrup can easily replace refined sugar in most recipes and can be used as a sweetener in hot drinks, fruit salads, breakfast cereals and cakes. It can also accompany salty dishes. However, whilst it can be described as a healthier alternative to sugar, it’s not really ‘healthy’. There’s about 12g of sugar in just 1 tablespoon of maple syrup, and no protein or fibre. 80% of the sugar is fructose and researchers are still studying the links between high-fructose foods, obesity, diabetes, and even some cancers.
Is maple syrup good for the environment?
As well as the health benefits to humans, maple products may also have a positive environmental impact. The 34 million maple trees in production in Quebec alone absorb 962,200 metric tons of carbon monoxide each year. This cancels out the CO equivalent of 290,000 vehicles each year - which is around 10% of London's annual traffic.
Using one teaspoon of maple a day for a year guarantees the placement of two new maple trees into the production cycle, and therefore under protection. A maple tree can live up to 300 years, or even more and the general rule is to wait until a tree is at least 45 years old before beginning to harvest its sap. Maple growers never harvest sap from a maple tree whose trunk is less than 20 cm in diameter and the trees are not harmed from extracting the sap.
PETA’s Case Against Maple Syrups From Canada
The Canadian province of Quebec is by far the largest producer of maple syrup, responsible for 70 percent of the world's output. PETA recently called for a boycott of all Canadian maple syrups, due to country’s infamous and massive seal slaughter. Canada’s annual seal hunt is considered to be the world’s largest slaughter of marine mammals, with hundreds of thousands of harp seals cruelly slaughtered each year.
Despite official government regulations for humane killing, the lack of enforcement allows fishermen to continue with their massive slaughters unchecked and unregulated. For this reason PETA are urging a boycott of Canadian maple syrups. This will often include own brand maple syrups as these are simple re-branded Canadian syrups.
PETA’s case against Canadian maple syrups has been hotly debated because those that manufacture maple syrup are not directly responsible for the seal slaughter. It’s up to you, to decide how to use your vegan voice and whether or not you want to motivate change through boycott.
Is maple syrup plant based?
Even where there are animal by-products in the final product as a result of the defoaming process, maple syrup is considered suitable for a plant based diet. A plant based diet consists of mostly foods derived from plants, with few or minimal animal products. The final product, (unlike say oreo cookies or french fries) also resembles its original plant form, (sap), which would satisfy stricter plant-based diets, albeit that the final syrup is thicker original plant form.
Is maple syrup vegan?
Some brands use animal fat in the production process and therefore these brands are not vegan. But, you don’t need animal fat to make maple syrup. The syrup can be defoamed using vegetable-based products instead, which might cost you a little more, but the extra layer of animal-free protection is priceless. So how do you know if you’re choosing the right brand? Contact the manufacturer directly and ask whether any animal products used throughout the supply chain - with specific reference to the defoaming process.
Veganism is a philosophy deeply devoted to animal rights, and is a lifestyle choice that involves diet, politics and ethics. Even if the manufacturing process does not use animal fat, you’ll need to consider your own beliefs and values regarding Canadas massive seal slaughter before determining whether or not to buy maple syrup.
Most brands that make maple syrup also manufacture products that aren’t vegan. This could lead to trace cross contamination. Few vegans are primarily concerned with the trace contamination, but are however concerned with the brands overall ethical standpoint. Many maple syrup producers also produce honey, Buckwud maple syrup for example is a sub-brand of Rowse (Valeo Foods UK). Kirkland (or kirkland signature) maple syrup isn’t Canadian, however it’s produced by Costo. Costco are responsible for vast amounts of animal rights abuse, owing to the high volume of cheap meat, poultry and dairy that they sell.
Is maple syrup raw vegan?
Maple water is the sap directly from the tree, however its not very sweet. Maple sap has to be boiled in order to produce the sweet distinctive flavour of maple syrup. This means that the product is heated past the 48℃ cut off that raw vegans adhere to.
Conclusions about maple syrup
If you can find a maple syrup that’s organic, uses vegetable fats in the defoaming process, and comes from a brand that only makes and sells other vegan and ethical products, then buy a tonne and go crazy, (being careful to watch your fructose consumption of course). Otherwise, you might have to do some soul searching to determine whether or not to leave it off your plate.