A symbol of Canada, maple syrup is produced from the xylem sap of several maple tree varieties. The ones most commonly used for this purpose are red maple, sugar maple or black maple.
The native North American Indians were the first to prepare and consume maple syrup. European colonists learned how to do it from the natives but later developed more advanced techniques to extract the sap.
To survive in the cold climate where they grow, maple trees accumulate starch in their roots and trunks to consume it during the winter. In the coldest periods of late winter and at the beginning of spring, the trees convert the starch into sugar. This sugar rises up in sap, in order to feed the tree. The sap can be extracted by drilling a hole into the trunk. The next step is heating up the sap in order to evaporate most of the water in it, the final result being a thick syrup, which is very sweet and has a concentrated flavour.
The sap of the tree is very similar to blood in humans and animals. It is a liquid that circulates through the tree in order to feed all its parts, transporting the water and nutrients needed by the cells. Like blood, drilling a hole in the tree will make the sap flow out.
Drilling a hole is potentially dangerous for the trees. For this reason, only maples that are large enough in diameter and at least 40 years old are used for harvesting, otherwise they might be killed by the process. A mature tree can generate an important quantity of sap in one year, of about 40 litres (10 gallons). After one year, the tree will manage to heal itself and seal the hole. A new one must be drilled for the next harvesting season.
However, in order to get the actual maple syrup, very large amounts of sap are required. This is because most of the sap is made of water, which must be eliminated in order to concentrate the syrup and give it proper sweetness and taste. In general, 40 litres of sap are needed for a single litre of syrup, although the exact amount depends on the sugar content of the sap. To get refined products such as maple sugar, maple butter or maple cream, even larger quantities of sap are needed.
The end result is a very dense and viscous syrup, with a high sugar content and a particular taste. It is widely used as a sweetener instead of sugar in baking products. Because of the high caloric content, it is a popular breakfast choice and it is added on top of waffles, pancakes and various other morning foods. It can also be used as an alternative to honey in order to sweeten tea or coffee. Because the syrup is so difficult to produce, the real one can be quite expensive and there are numerous inferior products and alternative imitations.
Most of the world's production of maple syrup still comes from North America, the native range of the tree and the area where the syrup was initially produced. It is considered a symbol of Canada and produced in the East of the country but the USA is also a major producer, especially in the states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The taste of the syrup from these areas is not exactly the same and a connoisseur will be able to tell the difference.
Both Canada and the USA have a grading system for maple syrup, which is mandatory by law. Both systems judge the syrup based on its color but the grading is not the same. The US recognizes two grades. Light amber, medium amber, and dark amber are all considered part of Grade A syrups. Grade B covers all the darker varieties, with a more intense color than the dark amber division of Grade A. The grading system is only meant to attest the color and the taste of the product. It has nothing to do with its quality, even if most people assume that Grade A syrup is better. The taste is a matter of subjective preference and different people will have a different opinion. We can conclude that all grading systems judge only the color and the density of the syrup, not its overall quality or flavour.
A significant difference between the US and Canada is the required composition of maple syrup. In Canada, it must be made 100% from the sap of the tree, without anything else. In addition, the sugar content has to be at least 66%. The US laws are a bit more lax and don't require the syrup to be made only from tree sap, small additions are allowed.
Due to the high demand for cheaper alternatives to maple syrup, a number of imitations can be found on the market. According to the law, these can't be labelled as maple syrup and are usually marketed as pancake syrup in the United States. Most of them don't have any real maple syrup content at all, although there are a few that add a bit of the real thing for marketing purposes. The taste is very different from the genuine syrup but these alternatives try to imitate it by having a darker color, a very high sugar content and a viscous appearance.
The most important health benefit of maple syrup consumption is caused by the very high content of antioxidants. These play a crucial role in human health because they neutralize the free radicals produced by our body, which can cause oxidation and significant damage to tissues and cells.
The dangerous free radicals are produced by mitochondria cells. These cells produce the energy that powers our body but free radicals are an unwelcome by-product of this process. However, the mineral manganese that can be found in maple syrup supplies an oxidative enzyme named superoxide dismutase. This enzyme is very potent but at the same time very fragile and can be destroyed by other cells and pathogens inside our body. However, once it makes contact with the free radicals it can neutralize them, and thus allow the mitochondria to carry on its very important metabolic function without causing any harm to the rest of the tissues.
Another critical mineral present in maple syrup is zinc. Among other health benefits, zinc is known to be very useful for the good condition of the heart. It has been discovered that zinc protects the heart against the worst diseases like atherosclerosis, strokes and other serious problems. As a result, people with a weak heart are encouraged to consume maple syrup.
The rich zinc content of maple syrup helps the entire circulatory system. The inner coating of all blood vessels is made of a layer of the so-called endothelial cells. If our body is not supplied with enough zinc, this layer becomes weak and vulnerable to damage, which in time can cripple the entire system of the heart. Endothelial cells are some of the essential components that make up blood vessels. They can be destroyed by oxidized lipids and in particular by high levels of cholesterol. For this reason, including maple syrup in the diet ensures good operation of the heart and can prevent a wide range of health issues.
The potent combination of zinc and manganese in maple syrup has been validated by researchers to have other benefits as well. The human body needs a daily intake of both these essential minerals in order to produce white cells in the blood. A diet that doesn't supply enough of these nutrients will result in a drop in the number of white cells, which cripples the immune system and delays its response to threats. The only way to restore the normal level of cells is to provide an adequate quality of both zinc and manganese. At the same time, maple syrup is a source of magnesium, another mineral that plays an important role in the normal operation of the immune system.
The mineral combination found in maple syrup also contributes to a healthy reproductive system and has been known to especially protect the prostate gland. It is believed that zinc is responsible for ensuring that males preserve a healthy reproductive function. Low levels of zinc and other essential minerals have been linked to prostate cancer and other lethal diseases, so men must be careful to always supply the required daily amount of minerals. Maple syrup is an excellent choice because it is natural, sweet and delicious, while providing all the compounds needed by the body.