Maple is trendy. It’s one of the few sweeteners gaining in market share thanks to its nutritional superiority over other sweeteners. Sugar makers and trade associations also play a part in getting the word out about maple syrup and other maple products. Seeking to capitalize on this popularity, many mass-produced cereals, snacks and even meat products are promoting their maple-flavored products.
Unfortunately, many of these food manufacturers aren’t using real maple syrup. They’re using artificial maple flavoring, but still using the word “maple” prominently on their packaging. These perpertrators use illustrations of sugarhouses or buckets hanging on trees to evoke real maple syrup, even if nothing in the product came from a maple tree. Food chemists can approximate just about any taste these days, and there are even recipes available online for making imitation maple flavoring using fenugreek seeds, which contain sotolon, an organic chemical that gives maple syrup its distinctive flavor and aroma.
The problem, of course, is that foods that promote their maple flavor without using any real maple syrup in their production give consumers a flawed representation of what real maple flavor tastes like. One taste of a too sweet “maple sausage” or a chemical-tasting “maple-flavored cereal” could turn a consumer off to maple products forever, even though their experience wasn’t with pure maple syrup.
The best way to counter this trend is by educating your customers. Include information on your website or in your farm store explaining how to read labels to ensure that products contain only 100 percent pure maple syrup. As hard as it is to spend money on the stuff, I know of many sugar makers who keep a bottle of artificially flavored syrup in their sugarhouses so they can offer side-by-side taste tests and help people realize how much better real maple syrup is.
Urge your customers to ask for real maple syrup in restaurants, and give them your business card to hand to any restaurant manager who says they can’t find local syrup. Consider offering signs or stickers stating: “We use only real maple syrup” to restaurants that buy your syrup.
If you have a relationship with a food manufacturer who is using something other than pure maple syrup to sweeten or flavor their products, use the opportunity to educate them about what they’re missing. They may claim that real maple syrup is Maple Syrup: Keeping it Real too expensive, which gives you a chance to educate them about how much flavor it can add to a product, even in small amounts, how much better it tastes, and how much healthier it is than any imitations they may be using, and so is well worth a few extra pennies per serving.
Labeling laws are another valuable tool to help ensure consumers don’t confuse real maple products with the fake stuff. Many states have truth-in-labeling regulations that require manufacturers to be clear and honest on their products’ packaging.
Vermont’s code, for example, states: “Artificial maple flavored products shall be clearly and conspicuously labeled on their principal display panel or panels with the term ‘artificial flavor’ shall be of a size equal to, or larger than, other words used to describe the product. It is unlawful to use the terms ‘maple syrup’ or ‘maple sugar,’ however modified, to describe an artificially flavored product.” The code goes even further, insisting, “Any restaurant menu listing such a product, or any advertising of such a product shall clearly state that the product is artificially flavored.”
Massachusetts state law also includes strict rules: “The use of the words ‘maple’ or ‘maple syrup’ shall not be used in the labelling or branding of any food product which does not contain any maple syrup in its ingredients.” The state of Maine protects its maple crop by insisting that products not be sold “combined, interfused or diluted with cane or other sugars or any substance without distinctly marking, stamping or labeling the article or the package containing the same or the advertisement of or menu statement thereof with an accurate and descriptive name of such article and in the case of maple sugar and maple syrup, the percentage in which maple sugar or maple syrup enters into its composition.”
Unfortunately, these rules and regulations aren’t well-known, and there are plenty of examples of national brands selling products in violation of these rules in these states. Regulators likely don’t see this issue as a high priority, and few consumers are even aware that the laws are on the books, so the violations aren’t brought to anyone’s attention. Most states do have consumer protection departments that respond to complaints from the public, though, and even if it’s only in the form of a sternly worded letter to the manufacturer, filing such complaints is still a step in the right direction.
For those states that don’t have such regulations, it’s up to sugar makers to advocate for these kinds of rules to be implemented. There are strict rules about the use of many food terms, from “ice cream” to “champagne,” meant to ensure that the businesses of the people who produce these foods the right way aren’t harmed by imitation products. Maple syrup deserves the same.