The Maple Mishap Isn't Sweet

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In Vermont, maple syrup is life, and right now it’s sugaring season. It’s the time of year when makers of maple syrup kick into high gear, ensuring that their product meets the demands of the people who know that just about every dish is tastier with a splash of maple goodness.

The sticky, sweet, elixir begins by flowing in thin liquid form–crystal clear, like water dripping through the trees–into the tin sap collectors which are tapped into tree trunks and left hanging to collect their bounty.

Springtime in Vermont fluctuates between freezing temperatures at night and more temperate ones during the day. It’s a pattern which facilitates the flowing of sap, by building up pressure and pushing it quickly through the veins of the massive maple trunks which have taken stake in the lush lands.

The sap run is different every year and yields varying amounts. But one thing is sure; it takes a whole lot of time and effort to boil down the watery sap into the high viscosity golden brown sweet stuff. To make just one gallon of maple syrup, it takes 40 times that of unadulterated sap.

It’s all worth it though, because there’s nothing quite like 100 percent real, natural, maple syrup.

Unfortunately, the industry is facing some major issues, as larger companies are attempting to capitalize on the demand for this product by using cheap imitation ingredients and tricking customers with misleading labelling.

This not only has the potential to divert possible sales from hard-working farmers and families, but it also dilutes a brand which holds great import for those who have worked for generations to preserve it.

Roger Brown, an avid maple maker at Slopeside Syrup in Richmond, VT, knows just how much time, effort, and love goes into producing this quintessential product. It’s not only crucial for the economy of his home state of Vermont, adding approximately $330 million in gross sales annually, it’s also a huge point of pride for Vermonters.

“It’s a real thing that is part of the culture of Vermont,” says Brown. This cultural relic makes Vermont the largest producer of maple syrup in the country, according to the USDA.

Brown and his affiliates are speaking out against misleading labelling which has run rampant as of late. Larger companies have caught wind of the fact that maple is a coveted, tasty, product that consumers want to buy, and they’re using buzzwords to inappropriately market their items.

Maple has also recently been touted as a superfood, with health benefits ranging from potassium and calcium to high concentrations of antioxidants. Brown tells BTRtoday that as consumers have become more health conscious and educated about the positives of eating natural foods, the market impact has transformed for companies to give consumers what they want. Or at least make them believe that they have.

Quaker Brown Sugar Maple Oatmeal and Friendly’s Maple Walnut Ice Cream, for example, do not contain any pure maple. Brown and many others believe that this should therefore bar them from using the word on their labelling.

“It’s deceptive…They [consumers] think there’s maple in it, and there’s not!” insists Brown.

Furthermore, just because an item boasts “natural” flavoring doesn’t mean that word refers to the characteristic ingredient you might assume. It very well could signify that a lesser ingredient included is natural–a term which in and of itself is not even clearly defined by the FDA.

The issue with mislabeling food products is prolific and far reaching. In recent years, scandal has surrounded olive oil, honey, and–more recently–parmesan cheese. All of these have been sold to people under the auspices of being purely what they are advertised as, but are cut with canola oil, corn syrup, and wood pulp respectively.

Part of Brown’s cause, besides legal recourse for promoting truth in labelling, is to educate people about what maple really is, and what it isn’t, on a smaller scale.

In farmer’s markets, Brown encourages people to taste his syrup. They’ll often say that they don’t like the taste of maple. After some cajoling, they may try it and realize that it tastes nothing like the flavor they had associated with the word “maple” previously. An artificial flavor is what they have in mind, and they don’t know what the real thing actually tastes like. It’s a shame.

“One of the concerns for the maple industry is that you lose control of what the flavor is, in essence,” he explains. “You have a whole set of consumers who believe that maple is something that it’s not. That hurts. In the long term, that’s the most damaging.”

Ultimately, it’s a copyright issue. Companies should not be in the business of lying to their customers; it’s detrimental to all parties involved, except for the large corporations profiting from their deceit. Selling a knock-off designer bag and saying it’s original is illegal–stealing a hard-earned name from those who proudly work to don it is equally abhorrent.

Brown doesn’t necessarily want these companies to be punished for their wrongdoing, he simply yearns for transparency and trust to be maintained between consumers, companies, and the markets to which they both answer.

“Just be honest about what’s in your product!” he says. “I’m not saying your product is bad, or my product is good–I’m just saying your product is not like my product.”

If you’re unsure about what’s in the food that you’re buying, take a hard look at the ingredient list. And if you want to support the small business owners who trudge through forests and harvest their crops with care, buy single source 100 percent maple products. The taste alone is worth the trouble.