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Maple syrup rich in antioxidants: Study

Canada's most iconic food - maple syrup - is much healthier than previously believed, according to a new U.S. study.

Randy Boxwell, Canwest News Service, Mar 22, 2010

Canada's most iconic food - maple syrup - is much healthier than previously believed, according to a new U.S. study that found a host of disease-fighting antioxidants in the sugary sap and highlights the lost benefits of smothering pancakes with "fake" liquid sweeteners instead of the "real" stuff.

University of Rhode Island plant scientist Navindra Seeram, backed by more than $100,000 in research funds from Canada, announced Sunday at an American Chemical Society conference in San Francisco that he has discovered 13 new compounds "linked with human health" in samples of Canadian maple syrup.

Among the previously unidentified chemicals were phenolics believed to have "anti-cancer" properties, which sugar maples may be producing in reaction to being tapped by syrup farmers.

"We speculated that the sugar maple is wounded when it is tapped for its sap, and that it secretes phenolics as a defence mechanism," Seeram says in a summary of his findings.

"We know that plants must have strong antioxidant mechanisms because they are in the sun throughout their lives," Seeram adds. "We already know that berries, because of their bright colours, are high in antioxidants. Now we are looking at maple syrup, which comes from the sap located just inside the bark, which is constantly exposed to the sun."

The URI study was funded through a two-year, $115,000 grant supplied by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and CDAQ, the federally-funded Quebec agricultural development council.

The study, according to Seeram, was designed to conduct a "comprehensive phytochemical examination of Canadian maple syrup." The project yielded evidence of 13 "newly discovered" beneficial compounds in maple sap, which First Nations used for millennia before Europeans settled in Canada in the early 1600s.

"The presence of bioactive phytochemicals in Canadian maple syrup is interesting and relevant to uninformed consumers, who are frequently not aware that fake maple/pancake syrup may lack these natural products present in real maple syrup," says an abstract of Seeram's conference presentation.

A spokesman for Quebec's maple syrup industry hailed the findings as a promotional coup for one Canada's signature exports.

"We are proud that our producers are generously supporting this research, bringing to light a greater understanding of the gastronomic and health benefits of maple products," said Serge Beaulieu, president of the Quebec producers' federation, in the university's announcement of the study results. "It is not just for Canada, but for the welfare of consumers around the world."

Seeram's summary of the study acknowledged that pure maple syrup is "pricier than commercial brands" with little or no genuine maple content.

"At this point, we are saying, if you choose to put syrup on your pancakes, it may be healthier to use real maple syrup," he added, citing industry research indicating that 50 per cent of consumers don't know whether the syrup they buy has real maple ingredients.

"You pay for what you get and you get what you pay for," noted Seeram, "meaning there are consequences for what you eat."

Earlier this month, Beaulieu announced that the full results of a Quebec-based research project on maple syrup's health benefits would be unveiled in August at this year's International Horticultural Congress in Portugal.

The federally-funded study by University of Laval plant scientist Yves Desjardins has indicated the presence in maple syrup of a various beneficial compounds, the federation stated at the time, including a substance known to "stimulate insulin release through pancreatic cells" a potentially "potent weapon" against diabetes.

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