It’s Sunday morning and I’m at the breakfast table with my older son who is visiting for the weekend. I’m serving a delicious Challah French toast from a recipe out my book Beyond The Mediterranean Diet: European Secrets Of The Super-Healthy. Alongside the French toast, is a dish of cut up organic melon, a bowl of organic yogurt and bottle of organic pure maple syrup. We are just about to dig in and my son blurts out: “Why does the maple syrup label say: No Formaldehyde Used?”

Hmmm….  I had recently attended a press conference with a group of Vermont maple syrup producers and I knew that chemicals were not used in extracting sap from trees. The process of tapping collecting, processing and filtering the syrup is straightforward and natural. In fact, maple syrup is among the oldest natural food product produced in North America. Folklore credits the Native Americans with the discovery of this flavorful natural sweetener.

I dug into the topic, and found out that before the 1980’s, there were a few sugar makers who placed formaldehyde pellets into tap holes in trees to prolong the sugaring season and increase sap yields. This practice is both harmful to the tree and can contaminate the syrup.

Today, the use of formaldehyde pellets is illegal and there is no indication that anyone is currently using them. Therefore, it is misleading and irrelevant that the bottle of organic maple syrup would include a statement saying that no formaldehyde is used. Maple syrup produced anywhere legally, should be formaldehyde free.

Now, what about “organic”—is it worth paying extra for organic pure maple syrup? 

I discovered that organic producers of maple syrup do have to adhere to stricter regulations concerning lead in equipment, types of filtering agents, and bans on chemical defoamers.

But according to Penn State Extension, in conventional maple syrup production, chemical defoamers will evaporate without a noticeable trace in the syrup when used in small quantities.

The organic program requires certified foresters to ensure the sustainable management of forestland to promote tree health, biodiversity, and reduce erosion.

Beginning in July 2014, organic food processors and producers could apply for reimbursement of costs related to organic certification through the USDA National Organic Program. Farms and businesses that produce, process or package certified organic agricultural products are eligible to be reimbursed for 75 percent of certification-related costs – up to $750 per category of certificate. So there is no excuse for a farmer to say it’s too expensive to go organic. More often the problem is keeping up with paperwork.

The bottom line is get to know your farmer, whether it be a small maple syrup producer or a sustainable fish farmer. As explained in my book, Beyond The Mediterranean Diet, a direct conversation with the “grower of your food” is getting the facts “straight from the horse’s mouth.”

From the labeling perspective, my hope is that the natural food industry will take the lead and put an end to advertisements and health claims that are deceptive, irrelevant and often misleading. As for that bottle of organic pure maple syrup– the “no formaldehyde used” statement makes no sense. The label would be more inviting without it!

One strong recommendation—stay away from the the imitation national brands on the supermarket shelves. They may cost less, but you get what you pay for. Imitation maple syrup is an artificial food made from potentially harmful ingredients such as corn syrup and caramel color. It’s a far cry from the real thing!

Maple syrup trivia:

  • Most of the maple syrup is produced in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada.
  • Vermont is the top producer in the US.
  • Europe imports maple syrup from the US and Canada.