Maple Syrup: Putting the Tree back in Treat

| March 6, 2014 | 0 Comments

If the saying, “you are what you eat” is true, then I am a jar of maple syrup. Where does maple syrup comes from, you ask?

Well, we know that maple syrup comes from maple trees, but how exactly do you get a jar of delicious waffle sauce from a boring old tree?

Maple syrup is harvested from sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) in late winter. In the Northeast, trees become relatively lazy in the cold weather and spend most of their energy hanging out in the snow, doing their best to stay alive. Trees, like all plants, are filled with water that is used to transport nutrients  up and down the tree. During the sunny seasons, trees convert sunlight to sugar through the process of photosynthesis and that sugar is needed for energy throughout the entire year. In the winter, temperature changes between “cold” and “very cold” drive water up and down the tree. Do you remember that feeling in your fingers and toes when you come inside a warm building after being outside in the cold for a long time? For me, I can feel the blood rushing into my hands and feet, pulsing fervently to warm up your appendages. Trees do something similar, but instead of blood, they have water filled with nutrients and sugars. We call this sap.

Sap in a sugar maple tree is 2% sugar. To make syrup, all you do is tap a tree, collect the syrup, and boil off the water until you’re left with 67% sugar. Yum. This video explains the process very well. When you buy a jug of syrup from Shaw’s, this same process is magnified thousands of times, with thousands of trees tapped, their sap pooled into a single jug. That is why you can guarantee that almost all commercial maple syrup tastes the same. Now, those trees likely span a wide area with a range of soil qualities, habitat contexts, and water and sunlight availability. Idiosyncratic things about each tree will give the sap from that tree a very unique flavor. If you were to tap, say, 100 trees in a small area, you could maintain some of that specialness (it is even likely that many of the trees are closely related to each other). Again, when you pool sap from millions of trees, you lose that local zing. Imagine a large forest of colored M&M’s. Trees in different regions have different attributes, as represented by the colors. If you eat all those M&M’s at once, they will taste like boring old chocolate and you will not be able to discern the difference between red and yellow (I would have used skittles for this demonstration but I knew I’d enjoy eating the chocolate more).

An M&M forest photo credit Will Carberry

An M&M forest. photo credit: Will Carbery

When you eat maple syrup made from a small number of local trees (or M&M’s), you will be treated to an incredibly local flavor. It will be unlike that jar from Shaw’s, and unlike syrup made in the next county over. The magical thing is, when you eat local maple syrup, you are tasting the very essence of your geographic region: the soil you walk on, the air you breathe, the sunlight you feel.

Imagine maple syrup made from just the red M&M's photo credit Will Carberry

Imagine maple syrup made from just the red M&M’s… see analogy above for context. photo credit: Will Carbery

So seek it out! Buy local maple syrup from a farmer’s market or online. It is more expensive, but you are paying for the labor of turning all the sap into syrup. Be adventurous and put the tree back in treat. And if you are what you eat, then you’ll be where you live. How cool is that!

A group of BU students learn about maple syrup during a trip to Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary (hosted by BU Dining Services) photo credit: Evan Kuras

A group of BU students learn about maple syrup during a trip to Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary (hosted by BU Dining Services). This guy is boiling down sap into syrup. photo credit: Evan Kuras

feature image photo credit: Evan Kuras

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Category: featured, Food and Travel, Nature

About the Author ()

Evan is a Senior in the College of Arts and Sciences (2014). He is studying biology and anything else he can get his hands on. Evan is interested in urban ecology, environmental education, and food justice. In his spare time, Evan enjoys making music, checking his email, and running. Evan hails from Yorktown, New York.

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