Spoiler alert: a lot of fake sugar
what is in fake maple syrup
Credit: Photo by Bloomberg via Getty Images

Many people prefer fake maple syrup, the stickier alternative to the concentrated sap from sugar maple trees. In a recent consumer survey, the Washington Post found that while 27 percent of the Americans polled liked real maple syrup, nearly 70 percent preferred artificial versions (25 percent chose Aunt Jemima, 24 percent picked Mrs Butterworth’s, and 14 percent preferred Log Cabin). While there’s certainly nothing wrong in choosing a lower priced option when you don’t mind the difference in taste, shouldn’t you know exactly what's in fake maple syrup before you smother it over your pancakes?

Real maple syrup naturally takes on the color and texture we’re familiar with during the sap-evaporation and boiling processes. Fake maple syrup is processed and dyed to mimic the taste and texture of the real deal, but as watermelon-flavored candy doesn’t taste like a slice of fresh melon, some things just don’t transfer. Let’s look at one of the most popular brand of artificial maple syrup, Aunt Jemima, and find out what’s really in the bottle:

Aunt Jemima Original syrup starts as you may have expected: with sugar—corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, to be exact. That sounds like a repeat, but the two ingredients are distinct. Corn syrup is a syrup made from corn starch and is 100 percent glucose. It’s used to soften texture of a product, prevent crystallization of sugar, and to enhance flavors. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a liquid sweetener and preservative also made from corn starch, but it has been processed to convert some of its glucose to fructose. It has also been linked to contribute to myriad health concerns like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Aunt Jemima Original also contains cellulose gum (known as carboxymethylcellulose), which is made by combining cellulose, a carbohydrate which comes from wood pulp or cotton lint, with an acid. While it will typically be used in highly processed foods, the FDA considers it a safe food additive for improving the texture of a product.

Caramel color, most commonly used to dye sodas brown, is another ingredient in Aunt Jemima syrup. It’s made from food-grade carbohydrates and acids, and is safe to consume as long as it has lower than FDA-regulated amounts of lead, arsenic, and mercury—which doesn't exactly make me feel any better about eating the stuff. Certain varieties of caramel color can contain 4-methylimidazole, a potentially carcinogenic chemical.

The syrup is further preserved with sodium benzoate and sorbic acid to prevent the syrup from spoiling on the store shelf, and sodium hexametaphosphate, a thickener.

Finally, Aunt Jemima syrup also contains water, salt, and unnamed “natural and artificial flavors.”

It’s clear that there’s a lot of stuff in fake maple syrup, and the food is highly processed, which ultimately points to the fact that it may not be great to put into your body in large quantities. If you really just buy the fake stuff to save cash, try making your own fake maple syrup: It tastes better and is completely free of creepy preservatives.