Unlike highly processed white sugar, maple syrup (along with other natural sweeteners like raw honey, brown rice syrup, and dates) isn’t stripped of its nutrients. So it retains small amounts of vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
For the record, we’re talking about pure maple syrup here, not maple-flavored pancake syrup, which is just white sugar or high fructose corn syrup gussied up with artificial colors and flavors. You probably already knew this, but just in case. (Here are the 5 worst sweeteners you should avoid.)
But emerging research shows that pancakes’ favorite companion has even more going for it than we thought. University of Rhode Island researcher Navindra Seeram, PhD, has been studying the sticky stuff for the past decade. And it turns out that maple syrup is loaded with anti-inflammatory compounds that could protect your health.
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Namely, phenols—a family of antioxidants similar to those found in superfoods like berries, cruciferous vegetables, flaxseeds, and green tea. One, called quebecol (named after the powerhouse maple syrup producing Canadian province of Quebec), is unique to maple. It’s created when sap from the maple tree is boiled to make maple syrup, Seeram says.
In a recent Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study looking at pure maple syrup extract, Seeram showed that these phenols can reduce inflammation in cells. That’s a finding that comes with potentially big implications, since inflammation is linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Keep inflammation at bay, and you could significantly reduce your risk for some serious health problems.
That’s not all. Turns out, maple syrup might also do good for your gut. Last year, Seeram and his team discovered that maple syrup contains inulin, the same type of fiber found in foods like bananas, artichokes, and onions. A prebiotic, inulin supports the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus—while suppressing the growth of bugs that can make you sick.
Related: Maple Syrup Vs. Raw Honey: Which Is Healthier?
Does that give you a green light to pour as much maple syrup as you want on everything, Buddy the Elf-style? Not quite. The studies used maple syrup extract (a highly concentrated version of maple syrup), and they weren’t conducted on humans. So for now, there’s not yet proof that maple syrup can prevent horrible diseases and promote a healthy gut. Seeram is optimistic, though. “Based on what we hypothesize, we have the data to support the protective effects of maple syrup extract. It’s all preliminary for sure, but it’s very promising,” he says. (Here are 9 creative ways to cook with protein powder, including pancakes!)
Just as important? Remember that maple syrup is a healthier choice, not a healthy choice, period. It’s still a type of sugar, and like all sweeteners, is best enjoyed in small doses. “The point isn’t to consume it to get your antioxidants. But if you’re consuming it in place of refined white sugar or pancake syrup, you’ll get some antioxidants,” says Seeram.
His favorite motto might sum it up best: “Don’t guzzle, just drizzle,” he says.