by Courtney Llewellyn

Maple syrup is usually the product people think of when there’s talk of tapping maple trees. But there is an emerging market for something else – something simpler – that sugarmakers may want to tap into.

In “Maple Foods Beyond Syrup: Maple Sap Water, An Emerging Functional Beverage,” hosted by University of Rhode Island Cooperative Extension, Dr. Navindra Seeram, professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at URI, and Kate Weiler, ultra-athlete and co-founder of Drink Simple, looked at the science behind maple water as a functional beverage.

Seeram has long been studying plants that are beneficial to humans, and “in this part of the world, it didn’t take me long to figure out it was maple,” he said. Every year, maple syrup is the first agricultural product to be harvested on the East Coast. He wanted to understand the potentially beneficial compounds in maple syrup, starting with its source: maple sap.

“The question we were trying to answer when we started research on syrup was figuring out the minerals and the vitamins and the amino acids and the organic acids and the phytonutrients in it,” Seeram said. “We thought maybe a lot of the phytonutrients we were finding in syrup were coming from sap” – and surviving the boiling process for syrup. All the same compounds are found in sap, just in lower concentrations.

Those healthy compounds are also what drew in Weiler. She was competing in an Ironman Triathlon years ago in Canada and while there found a shop selling maple water. “I had no idea sap was this hydrating, water-like substance. I tried the product and immediately felt better and boosted,” she said. She noted there was a demand for natural hydration that started picking up steam in 2013, and while she saw lots of coconut water on the market, she couldn’t believe the Northeast had this native resource – and that it seemed no one was tapping into it.

Nectar from the trees: Maple water

A young boy takes a sip from a bucket of maple sap. Photo courtesy of Dominion Wide/National Film Board of Canada

“It’s called maple water because people think sap is sticky,” Seeram stated. “If I could go back 100 years, I’d call it maple nectar.” Weiler confirmed it was simply a marketing decision to call it maple water.

Maple water has half the sugar of coconut water, and Weiler said many people find maple water better tasting. “People have been drinking it for hundreds of years – but it could only be consumed during harvest season,” she said. “Now we can bottle it and have it year-round.”

Maple products are culturally and economically very important to this part of the world, Seeram added. And they are a result of sustainable agriculture.

Obtaining maple sap is very similar to maple syrup production, according to Weiler. “We tap maple trees and just filter and clean up the sap before packaging it,” she explained. “It’s a very simple product. There’s really not much that we need to do.” Her company pasteurizes it for cartons – a one-ingredient product – or adds carbonation and a little bit of organic fruit juice for sparkling varieties in cans.

“We realized quickly this was a very, very sustainable product,” she said. “It encourages responsible forestry and encourages trees to be standing. It takes 40 years for a tree to be able to be tapped for sap. As long as there is demand for maple water and maple syrup, trees will stay standing. And standing trees help mitigate climate change.”

There are several North American maple species, but the two predominantly used for sap/syrup are the sugar maple and the red maple. Seeram said we can see differences in their mineral content based on their soil, but on the macro level, the nutrients are about the same. Other tree species produce sap that can be consumed, but not in the large, commercially produced way that maple does. He noted that maple phytonutrients are very diverse – his research has identified more than 60. “It’s sucrose-plus,” he said of the natural sweetener.

It’s also forestry-plus. Creating maple water supports the local economy, Seeram said, and it allows producers to diversify their offerings.

Weiler said Drink Simple sources their sap from farmers in Vermont and Upstate New York who are long experienced in the art and science of sap collection. One has 5,700 acres of trees with hundreds of thousands of taps.

Research is ongoing at URI to find the other ways in which maple sap is useful – and what other products may be produced from it.