Pitcher of maple syrup

On pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, and more, Americans love maple syrup. The rich flavor is one reason why it's so popular, but it has also been touted as a "natural" sweetener that's better for you than plain old sugar. Not only is that not true, but it's also just one of several big misconceptions people have about maple syrup. Just in time for your winter weekend waffle or pancake breakfasts, we clear up the confusion and explain the latest in syrup labeling.

Pancake Syrup and Maple Syrup Are Not the Same

Although they may sit side by side on grocery store shelves, the two syrups are quite different. Maple syrup is actually made from maple tree sap that’s been boiled down to reduce the water content and concentrate the sugars. Those sugars caramelize, resulting in maple syrup's characteristic rich color and flavor. It takes about 10 gallons of sap to make just 1 quart of maple syrup.

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By way of contrast, 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 differently by the body than other types of sugar, while others say that there's little difference. Regardless, you'll also find added coloring, flavoring, and preservatives in pancake syrup. The coloring is often caramel color, some types of which contain a compound called 4-MEI, a potential carcinogen. In Consumer Reports tests, we found that some pancake syrups had notable amounts of 4-MEI.

The ingredient label isn't the only place you'll notice a distinction. 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.

Maple Syrup Is Not Healthier Than Sugar

Pure maple syrup is a better choice than pancake syrup, but it certainly isn't a health food. It is considered to be an "added sugar" in your diet. But regulations about how maple syrup's sugars are listed on Nutrition Facts Labels could lead to some consumer confusion.

If maple syrup is an ingredient in a packaged food, such as granola or granola bars, the sugars it contributes will be listed under the newly required "added sugars" line. And if you stir some maple syrup into your oatmeal or pour over pancakes, that maple syrup would count toward your daily added sugars intake. The daily limit for "added sugars," according to the Food and Drug Administration, is no more than 10 percent of your daily calories, or 50 grams for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet.   

However, if you look at the Nutrition Facts Label on a bottle of maple syrup itself, you won't see a line that says "includes X grams of added sugars"—but the Daily Value column will list a percentage. Why? 

"It is confusing, but the easiest way to think about it is that maple syrup is sugar, so it counts toward your daily intake of added sugars, but it doesn't contain added sugars," says Ellen Klosz, nutritionist and food test program leader at CR.  

Here's how this came to be. The FDA recently made changes to the Nutrition Facts Label regulations (which went into effect in January 2020). The agency had originally intended for maple syrup and other single-ingredient sugars, such as honey or table sugar, to have all of their sugar grams listed as added sugars. However, honey and maple syrup producers pushed back, saying that consumers would think that the products contained sweeteners other than maple syrup or honey when manufacturers don't add sugar to these products. The FDA agreed but said that producers still needed to list the percentage of the daily value of added sugars supplied by their product so that consumers would know how much it contributed to their daily added sugars intake.   

Sugar aside, syrup does contain some nutrients. If you downed ¼ cup of maple syrup—the amount listed as a serving on the Nutrition Facts Label—you’d get 80 percent of your daily need for riboflavin, about 6 percent of calcium, 11 percent of zinc, and 4 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, and the maximum amount of added sugars you should have in a day. Each tablespoon has about 50 calories and 12 grams of sugars, so drizzle it on lightly. If your waffles or pancakes seem too dry, use chopped or puréed fruit to add sweetness; bananas, berries, or peaches are good options. 

Grade A Is Not Better Than Grade B

The traditional system of syrup grades may look like it's evaluating quality, but it's not. 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.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture addressed this potential point of confusion when it changed the labeling system for syrup so that it's 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.

Though the grades don't reflect variations in quality, they do indicate real differences in flavor. According to CR's food tasters, both dark and the amber versions have clean maple flavor, but the former is more intense and complex than the latter. You really notice the difference when you taste the amber and dark versions side by side, but whether amber or dark syrup is better is a matter of personal taste.

Waffles with raspberries and maple syrup

Higher Price Doesn't Equal Higher Quality

You don't need to pay more to get a quality product. According to CR's tasters, less pricey store brands can be as flavorful as more expensive brand names for both amber and dark syrups. And once you pour syrup on waffles or pancakes, any flavor differences are even less noticeable. "That's why we recommend buying syrup by price," Klosz says.

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-sized containers, and the syrup is often less expensive per serving when you buy the largest one. While 32 ounces may be more than you can use in six months, 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.

Which Waffle Maker?

When it comes to waffle makers, there are a wide range of features and prices available, so we've listed CR's three top-rated models below. 

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Calphalon CKCLWF1

Price: $100

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