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Real maple syrup trumps cheaper alternatives

Imagine a breakfast table on a classic Sunday morning in Maine: red gingham tablecloth, mugs of hot cocoa and coffee and a stack of fluffy buttermilk pancakes. Imagine the dollops of softened butter and the white bone china pitcher sitting at the center of the table, lovingly filled with warmed high fructose corn syrup for drizzling over the buttered pancakes.

Wait, what?

I watched an episode of Cook’s Country on PBS the other morning where the host, Christopher Kimball, explained to a genuinely shocked man that store-bought maple syrups do not in fact contain a single drop of real maple syrup. “Not a drop,” Kimball tells the man. “In fact, these syrups are packaged now as ‘Pancake Syrup.’” The man really couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe that he couldn’t believe it.

Here are the ingredients listed in a bottle of pancake syrup: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, water, cellulose gum, caramel color, salt, natural and artificial flavor, sodium benzoate and sorbic acid (preservatives) and sodium hexametaphosphate.

Sounds delicious, doesn’t it? What bothers me is that there are children and adults who think they love maple syrup on their pancakes and waffles — and they don’t even know what real maple syrup is or where it comes from. What they call “maple syrup” comes straight out of a squeeze bottle and isn’t remotely related to the real thing.

The real thing isn’t concocted in a massive manufacturing facility somewhere in the Midwest from artificial chemicals and colors. Real maple syrup comes in late February and early March from maple trees and from the labor and dedication of those farmers and hobbyists who are willing to stand over a steaming steel evaporator and wait for 40 gallons of sap to boil down into one gallon of syrup. The ingredients are as natural as nature can get.

According to the website, pure maple syrup is loaded with polyphenols, which are plant-based compounds that act as antioxidants. Pure maple syrup may boost your immune system and fight inflammatory diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis. The antioxidants found in pure maple syrup may repair environmental and free radical damage to your skin. It also boasts the minerals zinc and manganese which are essential to warding off illness. Compared to processed sweeteners, pure maple syrup is less likely to cause indigestion, bloating and gas. Maple syrup can easily replace sugar in many recipes. It can be added to oatmeal, ice cream, smoothies, muffins and granola.

I once let a co-worker try some pure maple syrup my father had made on his small hobby farm down in East Boothbay. His nose wrinkled. “Too sweet,” he said. “I like Aunt Jemima’s better.” I didn’t know there was such a thing as too sweet. If I’m going to splurge and have pancakes for breakfast, and if I’m going to be drizzling a sweet syrup over my stack, doesn’t it make sense for me to use a product that is made by local artisans and farmers and that boasts nutritional value to boot?

I know many people who won’t order maple syrup when they’re out to eat because it costs an extra two dollars. A squeeze bottle of pancake syrup — which comes with plenty of salt and high fructose corn syrup, don’t forget — costs only $3, while a similarly sized jar of pure Maine maple syrup can cost four or five times that. But I urge you to spend the extra money. Support your local farmer, honor old traditions and do your health and body a sweet favor.

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