Your breakfast may be maple in name only
It's a chilly morning, and you're running late. You check the pantry and there, in the back, is some instant maple oatmeal. Cook it, pour some milk, and there you go—it's warm food. But the maple flavor isn't what you remember from the last time you poured a bottle of the real stuff during a trip to New England. There's a good reason. Many of the foods labeled "maple" don't have any more concentrated maple sap than ersatz pancake syrup. And the maple syrup industry, as represented by associations of individual producers, is getting pretty peeved.
They've tried reaching out to the FDA to enact change. But don't expect food producers to start saying their maple flavor is imitation. As the federal agency told the producers, under US law, they don't have to.
"We are very concerned about misleading advertising that implies that real maple is in a particular product," said Dave Chapeskie, executive director of the International Maple Syrup Institute in Canada. "Sometimes the inference is using the imagery [and] a direct inference that it comes from the land, from the maple trees."
Often, the products, whether instant oatmeal, pancake syrup, ice cream, or something else, will use the word maple without any qualification. But you won't generally find maple sugar or syrup on the ingredient label, just natural and artificial flavors.
It's easy to understand the concerns of the big food manufacturers and why they can't use actual maple syrup. People love maple when it comes to breakfast. At a typical $50 a gallon for consumers, though, real maple syrup is expensive. The high cost comes from the production method. It takes 24 hours of boiling down 40 gallons of tree sap to get a single gallon of syrup. Maple sugar is further concentrated. There are also limits on how much maple syrup is available. Food products with actual maple would leap in price, the big food companies would run dry.
Hence the use of flavorings. Still, even when technically "natural," they aren't the real thing. There are three stand-by commercial substitutes for maple flavor. One is fenugreek, a spice associated with Indian food that can impart a maple-like flavor or aroma. Fenugreek was blamed for New York City's mysterious syrup smell back in 2009, and food writer Scarlet Lindeman found that she began smelling like maple syrup after eating fenugreek leaves.
The second and third options are ground hickory bark or maple wood, though not necessarily from sugar maples, that are boiled in syrup. The trick goes back to at least the 1880s when Josiah Daily patented his improved method of getting maple flavor from hickory bark, acknowledging that ground maple wood had long been used for flavoring.
Because all three derive from agricultural products, the flavoring is legally considered natural, even if not authentic. Checking a food label for natural flavoring doesn't necessarily tell consumers anything.
"The problem's been out there for years and years," said Pam Green, chair of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association. "It came to the forefront when more sugar makers are starting to make value-added products—products like barbecue sauces, salad dressings—where maple would be the primary ingredient. In doing that, we looked at some of these other products on the market and found out they said maple, maple, maple, and there was no maple in them. They were capitalizing on the popularity of this ingredient but they weren't buying any maple to put in their products."
Back in February, the industry decided to take action. The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association sent a letter to the FDA about the "misbranded" products that, according to the producers, were causing consumer confusion. "Thus, we request that FDA take enforcement actions to stop the misbranding of this class of products, either by removing the maple branding from the packaging, or by adding maple syrup—a substance derived from the heat treatment of sap from the maple tree," the letter said.
It should have been straightforward. After all, the FDA had forced a producer of vegan mayo to adjust its labeling to make clear there were no eggs in the product and therefore couldn't be considered actual mayonnaise.
But, as the FDA explains, there's a big legal difference between a food product like mayonnaise or maple syrup and a food flavoring. As an FDA spokesperson said in an email to Extra Crispy:
For the time being, that leaves maple producers up a tree. "Looking carefully at the law, I’m not surprised [at the FDA's decision]," said Greg Zimpfer, vice president of the New York State Maple Producers Association. "What surprised me was that they're unwilling to consider changing [the regulations]."
Producers are trying to enlist elected officials to pressure the FDA into some kind of change. But until then, if the ingredient label doesn't list maple, you're probably not getting it. In other words, when it comes to your breakfast, the next bite may be no better or worse than the bark.