April 3, 2012

C.U. Researchers Help Produce Maple Syrup

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With the help of Cornell scientists and farmers maple syrup is poised to make a comeback in markets. According to Mike Farrell, director of a Cornell run sugar maple research center called Uihlein Forest, Cornell research has helped double maple syrup production in the past 10 years.

High fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, stevia, aspartame, agave nectar—the list goes on. As the shelves of Whole Foods fill with more obscure sweetener products, the public has overlooked a natural sweetener growing in its own backyard: maple syrup.

With the help of Cornell scientists and farmers maple syrup is poised to make a comeback in markets. According to Mike Farrell, director of a Cornell run sugar maple research center called Uihlein Forest, Cornell research has helped double maple syrup production in the past 10 years.

In addition to research done on campus, Cornell runs two research sites: the Uihlein Forest located in the Lake Placid Region, and Arnot Forest, which is 45 minutes south of Ithaca.

Prof. Bryan Chabot, ecology and evolutionary biology, does research on how to improve sap collection technology and understand maple flavors. According to him, Cornell has made recent discoveries that have helped improved syrup yields.  University researchers discovered that by limiting bacterial growth in the tap and tubing they could improve the life of the tap and increase its output, he said.

This technique requires a certain finesse to work properly because bacteria also has a beneficial function, giving the sap flavor and color. Collected in a sterile environment, the sap produces a finished product that is a colorless, tasteless syrup.

“We have an interesting situation where flavor compounds require some bacteria to develop, but we don’t want too much of this because they will consume the sugar and decrease the life of the tap hole,” he said.

Because many people often consider maple syrup a specialty product they are often times unwilling to pay extra for it when they can use its lower priced imitation counterparts for their pancakes and waffles.  But according to Farrell, if more people knew the differences between pure and artificial syrups they would be more willing to use the natural syrup on their breakfasts.

“Most people don’t realize the differences between pure and artificial maple syrup,” said Farrell. Pure maple syrup is harvested from maple trees through a process called tapping. When spring weather creates a freezing and thawing effect inside the tree, the sap is naturally pressurized.  The tapping process includes drilling a hole in the tree and attaching a collection device below the hole. What first comes out of the tree, is a colorless, slightly sweet sap.   After collection, the sap is boiled for hours to remove the water.  A gallon of the finished product requires 40 gallons of sap to reach the desired sugar content of 67 to 68 percent. After undergoing these steps the sap is transformed into a syrup that can be served on top of pancakes.

The artificial syrup bought in the store does not come out of a tree, but rather it is typically high fructose corn syrup artificially modified to resemble something like the real thing.

High fructose corn syrup is found throughout the American diet even though discoveries have linked its consumption to numerous diseases. “All the research that has come out has shown that maple syrup is one of the healthiest if not the healthiest sweetener on the market” said Farrell. According to Farrell, that difference surprises some, “and once they learned the difference they are usually [maple syrup] customers for life.”

In addition to Cornell research, other factors have helped increase North American maple syrup production. According to Farrell, a seminal event in the recent history of maple syrup occurred in 2008, when conditions in Canada lead to a supply shortage.

Canadian production dwarfs that of the U.S., Farrell said. “Quebec controls the maple market, they produce about 80 percent of the syrup.” But when drought interfered with collection in Canada and reserve supplies were exhausted, demand outpaced supply and prices of what little syrup was left rose. After the weather returned to normal, prices stayed high and began attracting new entrants to the market.

According to Chabot, who also lectures on the history of maple syrup, Northeastern Native Americans were the first to tap for maple syrup. They later introduced the techniques to colonists, this was their own source of sugar in the new world. Leading up to the revolutionary war, once trade was established and imported sugar could be obtained, its use was encouraged to boycott British taxes on imported sugar like molasses.  With the assistance of researchers like Chabot and Farrell, the historic product of the Northeast is staging a comeback.

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Original Author: Ellis Carpenter

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