On pancakes, waffles, oatmeal and more, Americans love maple syrup. In 2015, 3.4 million gallons of the sweet stuff were produced in the U.S. The rich flavor is one reason why it's so popular, but it's also been touted as a "natural" sweetener that's better for you than regular old sugar. Not only is that not the case (read below), but it's also just one of a few big misconceptions people have about maple syrup. Here, we clear up the confusion and give the results of our recent maple syrup tests.  (See the tables below for our results, with products listed in rank order.)

Pancake Syrup and Maple Syrup Are Not the Same

Although they may sit side by side on grocery store shelves, they couldn’t be more different. Maple syrup is actually sap from a maple tree that’s been boiled down to reduce the water content and concentrate the sugars. The sugars caramelize, resulting in its characteristic color and maple flavor. It takes about 10 gallons of sap to make just one quart of maple syrup.

Pancake, or table, syrup is a highly-processed product. The primary ingredient is corn syrup and/or high-fructose corn syrup. Some experts suggest that high-fructose corn syrup may be processed by the body differently than other types of sugar, while others say that there is little difference. You'll also find added coloring, flavoring, and preservatives in pancake syrup. The coloring is often caramel color. Some types of caramel color contain a compound called 4-MEI, a potential carcinogen, and in Consumer Reports tests, we found that some pancake syrups had notable amounts of 4-MEI.

In blind tastings, our panel of professional tasters have detected big flavor differences between pancake syrup and maple syrup. Real maple syrup has a clean, complex maple flavor with hints of caramel, vanilla, and prune. Pancake syrups are singularly sweet with little complexity and noticeable artificial flavors.

There's also some confusion about the differences between maple syrup and maple water, a fairly new option in the beverage aisle. Maple water is the watery sap that's tapped from the tree and boiled down to make maple syrup. It's not water with maple syrup mixed in. It usually has around 5 grams of sugars per 8 ounces, but the amount varies by brand.

Maple Syrup Is Not Healthier Than Sugar

Maple syrup does contain more of some nutrients than table sugar—and it is a better choice than pancake syrup—but it certainly isn't a health food. Whether it's an ingredient in a packaged food or poured on pancakes or oatmeal, this syrup counts toward your daily added sugars intake. (These are the sugars that are added to food in processing or cooking, not the sugars that are an intrinsic part of fruit or dairy.) The latest U.S. dietary guidelines put a spotlight on added sugars, and for the first time there is a recommended limit: no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. 

If you downed ¼-cup of maple syrup—the amount listed as a serving on the nutrition facts label—you’d get 62 percent of your daily needs for riboflavin, about 9 percent of calcium, 8 percent of zinc, and 5 percent of potassium. But many other foods contain those same nutrients without the high calorie load: That same size serving of maple syrup has about 200 calories and 50 grams of sugars—more than in a 12-ounce can of cola. In fact, each tablespoon has about 50 calories and 12 grams of sugars, so drizzle it on lightly. If your pancakes seem too dry, use chopped or pureed fruit to add sweetness; bananas, berries, or peaches are good options. 

Grade A Is Not Better Than Grade B

Grade B syrup has a darker color and deeper flavor than grade A, but that doesn’t make it inferior. Many people prefer the more intense flavor of grade B. But this confusion may soon be cleared up in the minds of consumers. Recently, the United States Department of Agriculture changed the labeling system for syrup so that it is in line with international standards. Now all maple syrup is grade A, followed by a color/flavor description:

    • Grade A Light Amber is now Grade A Golden Color/Delicate Taste
    • Grade A Medium Amber is now Grade A Amber Color/Rich Taste
    • Grade A Dark Amber is now Grade A Dark Color/Robust Taste
    • Grade B is now Grade A Very Dark Color/Strong Taste

Although this change went into effect in March 2015, not all maple syrup producers have switched over, so you may still see the old grades on labels.

Our expert panel of tasters recently evaluated 14 maple syrups—eight dark, five amber, and one golden—both brand names and private label. For the test, the syrups were served in dark red cups so the color differences wouldn’t influence the experts’ evaluations.

What's the best type to serve at breakfast or brunch? It depends on your taste. We found the dark syrups to be more intense and complex than the amber syrups, but both types had clean maple flavors. The differences between the colors were quite noticeable when we tasted the golden, amber, and dark color offerings from one brand, Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value Organic Maple Syrup, side by side. The golden syrup was the most sweet with the mildest flavor. The amber syrup had more maple flavor and the dark syrup was complex with big molasses and intense maple flavors.

Higher Price ≠ Higher Quality

Not always. In our tests, Trader Joe’s 100 Percent Vermont Maple Syrup ranked Excellent and was also the least expensive amber syrup: $1.06 per ¼-cup serving. The priciest amber syrup, Maple Grove Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup, was $2.69 per ¼-cup and received a Very Good Rating.

We found a similar pattern among the dark syrups. The highest-priced syrup, Camp Pure Maple Syrup at $2.19 per ¼ cup, was judged to be Good while the lowest-priced, Kirkland Signature (Costco) Organic Maple Syrup, at $0.75 per ¼ cup, ranked Very Good. The two dark syrups that ranked Excellent were priced in the middle: Spring Tree Pure Maple Syrup ($1.19 per ¼ cup) and Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value Organic Maple Syrup ($1.25 per ¼ cup).

Once you pour the syrup on your pancakes or waffles, however, the differences between brands may not matter as much. We tasted the highest- and lowest-ranked brands in both color categories on waffles and found that the amber syrups were practically indistinguishable from one another. It was a little easier to tell the dark syrups apart. Our recommendation is to buy syrup by price.

Maple Syrup Will Not Keep Indefinitely

Unlike honey, maple syrup can grow mold so once you open a container you should put it in the refrigerator, where it will last 6 months to a year. An unopened container can be stored in a cool place for up to two years.

Some brands of maple syrup are sold in different-size containers, and the syrup is often less expensive per serving when you buy the largest one. For example, the Maple Grove Farms syrups in our tests cost $2.69 per ¼-cup serving when purchased in an 8 ½ ounce bottle, but came out to $1.19 per serving for a 32-ounce bottle. That’s a lot of syrup, but you can take advantage of the lower price if you store it in the freezer, where it will keep indefinitely (it won’t freeze solid). For the best flavor, bring maple syrup to room temperature or heat it gently before using it.

Dark Maple Syrups

Price per
container

($)
Cost per serving

(1/4 cup)
($)

Sensory description

Excellent
365 Everyday Value Organic Maple Syrup (Whole Foods)
32 fl. oz.


20.00


1.25

Clean, complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors and roasted/ toasted notes; a little more maple flavor than most dark syrups.

Excellent
Spring Tree Pure Maple Syrup
32 fl. oz.
19.001.19

Clean, complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors, roasted/toasted notes, and a hint of molasses; slightly astringent.

Very Good
Kirkland Signature Organic Maple Syrup (Costco)

33.8 fl. oz.


12.00

0.75

Clean, complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors, roasted/toasted notes and a hint of molasses; slightly astringent.

Very Good
Maple Grove Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup
32 fl. oz.
19.001.19

Clean, complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors and roasted/toasted notes; slightly astringent.

Very Good
Archer Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup (Target)

32 fl. oz.

15.200.95

Clean, complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors and roasted/toasted notes; slightly astringent.

Very Good
Cary's Maple Syrup Premium
8 fl. oz.
6.751.69

Maple syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla and woody flavors.

Good/Very Good

Great Value Pure Maple Syrup (Walmart)
12.5 fl. oz.


7.00


1.17

Maple syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, and woody flavors, less maple flavor than most dark syrups with a hint of alcohol; slightly astringent.

Good
Camp Pure Maple Syrup
8.5 fl. oz.
8.552.14

Maple syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla and woody flavors, less maple flavor than most dark syrups, noticeable throat burn; slightly astringent.

Both Excellent syrups were clean and complex with caramelized, slight vanilla, and woody flavors. More maple intensity or other notes added to the complexity. 

The top three Very Good syrups—Kirkland Signature Organic Maple Syrup, Maple Grove Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup, and Archer Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup—were not far off the Excellent mark with similar characteristics to those higher in the rankings. But Cary's Maple Syrup Premium lacked the complexity of the others.

Both Good syrups were straightforward maple syrups with just a bit less maple intensity than the Very Good syrups, but no off notes.


Amber Maple Syrups


Price per
container
($)
Cost per
serving
(1/4 cup)
($)
Sensory description
Excellent
Trader Joe's 100% Pure Vermont Maple Syrup
32 fl. oz.


17.00


1.06

Clean, complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors, roasted/toasted and slight molasses notes; slightly astringent.

Very Good
365 Everyday Value Organic Maple Syrup (Whole Foods)
32 fl. oz.


20.00


1.25

Clean, mild maple syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, and woody flavors; slightly astringent.

Very Good
Simply Balanced Organic Maple Syrup (Target)
12 fl. oz.
8.001.33

Clean, mild maple syrup with caramelized flavor and a bit more vanilla than most amber syrups.

Very Good
Crown Maple Syrup Amber Color
12.7 fl. oz.
15.002.50

Clean, simple, mild maple syrup with slight caramelized, vanilla flavors and a touch woody; thin, slightly astringent.

Very Good
Maple Grove Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup
8.5 fl. oz
10.752.69

Complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, woody flavors, roasted/toasted, slight molasses notes, and a hint of coffee; slightly astringent.

Trader Joe's 100% Pure Vermont Maple Syrup was a clean, complex syrup with caramelized, slight vanilla, and woody flavors. Other notes added to the complexity.

The 365 Everyday Value Organic Maple Syrup and the Simply Balanced Organic Maple Syrup were a step below the Excellent syrup with less maple intensity and lacked other notes that add to the complexity.

While still Very Good, the Crown Maple Syrup Amber Color and Maple Grove Farms 100% Pure Maple Syrup were not quite the quality of the others in this category.