Sweeteners and diabetes usually don’t mix, but maybe one day one sweet-tasting substance, maple syrup, will have an important link to fighting the disease if a Rhode Island researcher’s work continues along its promising path.
No, type-2 diabetics should not gulp syrups by the gallon just yet. But Dr. Navindra Seeram, a University of Rhode Island natural product chemist whose expertise is in looking for new drug compounds in nature, and his colleagues recently found several new properties with potential health benefits in the sticky stuff that comes from trees.
His study, funded by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, found 54 compounds in maple syrup –half of them previously undiscovered—including several found to possess antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and even potentially anti-cancer benefits. In researching the compounds, scientists also found enzymes that may help inhibit Type 2 diabetes, though more studies are needed on whether the extraction of that element could one day lead to an effective drug. Already, previous studies had identified some antioxidant and plant compounds deemed beneficial to people in maple syrup.
“Our study took it to a different level,” said Seeram, who presented his findings last month at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. “We did this large scale, and took a large quantity of syrup and found 54 phenolics (plant compounds) of which 40 were being reported from maple syrup for the first time.”
Additionally, five of the antioxidant compounds found in maple syrup were identified for the first time in nature, he said. One, dubbed Qubecol that’s derived of the boiling process that turns sap into edible syrup, was of particular interest. In a lab, the compound inhibited key enzymes that affect type-2 diabetics. Seeram cautioned while the finding is promising, it must be fleshed out in subsequent studies he hopes to embark upon.
“Maybe there could be, among these ample syrup compounds, potential future medicines. It’s a lead,” he said.
Lacking further investigation to that end, just consuming maple syrup proved to offer antioxidant qualities akin to those in berries, flax seed and other so-called “power” foods. Antioxidants help counter cell damage humans’ bodies sustain and have been shown to help in the fight against heart disease and certain cancers, explained Seeram.
While exciting and beneficial, Seeram cautioned consumers should take the findings of new health attributes with a grain of, ahem, sugar. Maple syrup is, after all, still a sweetener with about 60 percent sugar content, he said.
“If you’re choosing a sweetener, everything should be taken as part of a healthy lifestyle. If my kids are going to pour syrup on their pancakes, then I’m going to make a choice. Usually the popular brands are corn syrup and flavored and colored, whereas this is a natural sweetener and tit has these plant phenolics,” he said, calling pure maple syrup a good choice in the domain of sweet substances. “It could be a champion food among sweeteners. If you want plant antioxidant, you can go eat berries. You shouldn’t be eating maple syrup just to get antioxidant. But if you eat maple syrup, you can get antioxidants.”
In Connecticut which counts about 200 maple syrup producers whose annual sales amount to nearly $1 million, several tree-tappers hailed the news of new health attributes associated with their product.
“It makes me feel good to be farming and selling a product that delivers so much value to the consumer,” said Mark Harran, president of the Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut and owner of a sugar house at Brookside Farm in Litchfield. “I think it dramatically changes the picture of maple syrup. I’ve shown stats (on nutritional benefits) to people who come to my sugar house and they’re amazed, especially because they have a perspective on all sweeteners being bad for you. But maple syrup stands out.”
In addition to his excitement about the latest research, another fact Harran likes to share with customers is syrup’s glycemic index, which he hailed as relatively low for a sweetener. He acknowledged pure maple syrup costs than other pancake condiments, but argued its health properties and taste should make the higher price more palatable.
He thinks the more research that emerges about maple syrup’s beneficial properties, the more it will drive sales. Rob Lamothe, who co-owns Lamothe’s Sugar House in Burlington, agreed.
“Maple syrup has its place, because it’s not a processed food, and the more research they do, they find more benefits,” he said, calling the product also increasingly in demand as locally produced and all-natural.
To stress how his product might be superior to other sweeteners, Lamothe often distributes handouts to teach customers about the antioxidant and other beneficial qualities syrup possesses.
Both men are now selling the bounty of this season, which concluded earlier this month.
In 2010, Connecticut sugarhouses produced 9,000 gallons of syrup, a drop form 13,000 the previous year because of an unseasonably warm period. Harran called 2009 band and 2010 “really bad.” In order for trees to produce a good amount of sap to tap, Mother Nature must cooperate. Generally, a succession of cold nights followed by warm days set the stage for a sweet season. Initially, the 2011 season looked to be worrisome. Lamothe recounted having to trudge out in snowshoes atop four-foot high snow to tap some of the trees. In early February, when the season usually kicks off, the weather didn’t cooperate. But midday through the six-to-eight-week season, the weather—and maple syrup producers’ fortunes—changed.
“I thought we were headed for another dismal season,” said Harran, whose trees ended up yielding an amount equal to his record year. “I’ve canvassed a number of producers who called this a normal or average year.”
Typically, he said, most of the syrup that gets produced is bought on a yearly basis, and the cycle repeats. But both Harran and Lamothe see potential for expansion. Lamothe has been working to get officials to make more state-owned land available to tap trees. And between taking advantage of the state’s abundant cover of arbor and new technology that makes taps more productive, he and Harran see a limitless future.
“We tap less than 1 percent of our trees. Vermont, just over 2 percent. Quebec taps 33 percent. We’ve got a great opportunity here in Connecticut,” said Harran, who learned to tap syrup as a child and returned to the business about 12 years ago after decades in another career. “We’re small potatoes here, but we want to grow. There’s an economic benefit. And I think there’s a big, worldwide opportunity to advance maple syrup. We have a lot of unmet demand that we can fulfill in Connecticut.”