As Much as You Love Maple Syrup to Carb Up, It's Not Doing You Any Nutritional Favors

Matthew Kadey, MS, RD
·7 min read
Photo credit: miguelangelortega - Getty Images
Photo credit: miguelangelortega - Getty Images

There’s no debate: Pure maple syrup is delicious. Some athletes even rely on its fast-digesting carbs to power their rides in a more natural way, rather than using gels and chews. But since added sugar isn’t good for our health, it’s only natural to wonder: Is maple syrup good for you, and are you doing your health and performance any favors by giving it a pour?

Let’s tap (pun intended) into the science and break down this sweetener so you can decide what’s best for you.

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Maple Syrup Nutrition

A 1-tablespoon serving of maple syrup contains around:

  • 52 calories

  • 0 g protein

  • 0 g fat

  • 0 g saturated fat

  • 13 g carbs

  • 0 g fiber

  • 12 g sugars

  • 20.4 mg calcium

  • 0.4 mg potassium

  • 4.2 mg magnesium

In comparison, a 1-tablespoon serving of white granulated sugar contains:

  • 48 calories

  • 0 g protein

  • 0 g fat

  • 0 g saturated fat

  • 13 g carbs

  • 0 g fiber

  • 13 g sugars

  • 0 mg calcium

  • 0 mg potassium

  • 0 mg magnesium

“Maple syrup does contain nutrients like magnesium and calcium, and these beneficial micronutrients make maple syrup a more nutrient-dense sweetener when compared to ingredients like table sugar or simple syrup,” Kristen Arnold, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.S.D., a sports dietitian, cycling coach, and pro cyclist, tells Bicycling. “For this reason, choosing maple syrup to put in ride food recipes, desserts, or even in coffee will make the food more nutritious when compared to other types of sweeteners.”

But these nutrient levels are fairly minimal compared to whole foods, so you’d need to eat a lot of the sweetener to get a good dose of them, which, as you might guess, is not the best idea to keep your sugar intake in check.

Research (including this study and this study) has revealed that maple syrup contains a cocktail of polyphenol antioxidants, some of which are unique to the liquid sweetener. And a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that maple syrup has a higher antioxidant activity than regular sugar and corn syrup, although not as much as molasses. Some evidence suggests that darker grades, which are made from later season sap, possess more antioxidant firepower than lighter colored varieties. Our bodies use these types of antioxidants to disarm the trouble-making free radicals that can damage cells and lead to several chronic diseases.

“These antioxidants also have beneficial properties when it comes to accelerating recovery from training and overall lowering stress on the body,” Arnold says. “It is important for all athletes to focus on incorporating antioxidant-rich foods in their daily eating patterns.”

But just like with the micronutrients, Arnold says you should focus on eating more colorful foods like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, berries, and dark leafy greens to max out the antioxidant benefits in your diet.

In addition to containing antioxidants, an investigation out of the University of Rhode Island found that pure maple syrup contains the complex carb inulin, which acts as a prebiotic to promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria for better digestive and immune health. But, since the syrup is nearly all simple carbs, it’s up for debate as to whether there is enough inulin to make any difference. Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, leeks, onions, and under-ripe (green) bananas are better sources of prebiotic inulin.

Calorie-wise, maple syrup is about the same as white sugar, and both contain about the same amount of sucrose (a mix of glucose and fructose). “As far as we know, the sugar molecules in maple syrup are processed in the body the same way as table sugar,” Arnold says. “When using maple syrup, it is still best to treat it as an added sugar.” In other words, a sweetener is a sweetener, and something to use lightly.

A diet high in added sweeteners of all kinds has been linked to a host of health issues, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even the risk for earlier death. And, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high intakes of added sugars can crowd out important nutrients from a diet.

Certainly, if you are riding up a storm, you can get away with consuming a little more added sugar, but overall, it’s a good idea to keep your intake of sweeteners—even the more nutritious ones like maple syrup—in check. (The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping added sugars to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories, while the American Heart Association suggests the daily target for added sugar—including maple syrup—should be no more than the equivalent of 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men.)

With all this said, there are times when simple sugars like maple syrup can be a cyclist’s best friend. “Its carbohydrate is absorbed quickly by the body, so maple syrup is an excellent choice to boost performance in short-, medium-, and long-duration workouts,” says Arnold.

Maple syrup is made up of glucose and fructose which may offer fueling benefits—multiple sugars allow for enhanced absorption so you have more fuel to utilize when working out, according to Arnold. So, maple syrup can be a good alternative for people who don’t want to take in the flavorings and colors added to many sports drinks and energy gels.

Maple syrup also contains a slightly lower glycemic index than table sugar, so it may deliver a more steady stream of energy. Just keep in mind that maple syrup lacks enough electrolytes needed to help replenish what you are losing in sweat, so Arnold cautions that you need to be getting enough electrolytes, especially sodium, somewhere else. For instance, you could add a little salt to your maple syrup or use a maple syrup sport nutrition product that includes electrolytes.

How to Use Maple Syrup

While maple syrup is less sweet than table sugar, it does have a richer flavor. The only differences among the grades of maple syrup are their color and taste—not their sugar content. Syrup made from sap collected early in the season has a lighter color, while syrup made later in the season, when the weather is warmer, is darker. The darker the syrup, the stronger the flavor. (These are not to be confused with faux syrup made with corn syrup, artificial maple flavoring, and caramel color.)

Beyond Sunday morning pancakes and waffles, maple syrup can add a delicious sweet hit to oatmeal, yogurt, and cottage cheese. Maple syrup’s liquid consistency also makes it great to mix it in iced tea or use it in marinades, glazes, and salad dressings. To replace white sugar with maple syrup in baking, use 3/4 cup of maple syrup for every one cup of sugar. Also, be sure to reduce the amount of overall liquid in the recipe by about 3 tablespoons for each cup of maple syrup substituted.

To fuel endurance activities lasting longer than one hour, you can try using 2 to 3 tablespoons of maple syrup per hour for your carbs and see how your stomach handles this. The brand Untapped, which was co-founded by Tour de France cyclist and syrup-enthusiast Ted King, makes it easy to fuel with maple syrup on the go via gel packs, drink mixes, and waffles that are certainly more convenient than the jugs you see on store shelves.

You can also make your own sweet elixir by filling a reusable gel flask with pure maple syrup and a pinch of salt. Or, make this maple orange sports drink to help keep you ahead of the pack.

  • 2 cups water

  • 1 cup pulp-free orange juice

  • 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

  • 1/8 teaspoon + 1/16 teaspoon salt

  • Combine all the ingredients in a water bottle and shake well.

The Bottom Line: Undeniably, maple syrup is tasty and can serve as effective ride fuel. But there is no getting around the fact that nearly 100 percent of its calories are derived from sugar, and its nutritional virtues have largely been inflated. So use maple syrup judiciously to add flavor to foods and look elsewhere for most of your nutrition.

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