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For maple syrup producers and lovers, this could be the best of times and the worst of times.
March is typically the peak time for tapping sugar maple trees for the sap that gets distilled into the sweet, amber elixir aficionados consider far superior to the cheap, fake stuff made from high fructose corn syrup. To get maximum sap flow, producers need a run of daytime temperatures in the 40s and nights in the 20s, but this season, the weather's been too warm.
"This is a very poor season so far," said Jill Walker, who runs Rick's Sugar Shack in East Haddam with her husband, Rick. "Last year we made 135 gallons, but this year we'll be lucky to get 60."
But while 2010 is looking like a lean year for syrup - at least for the pints from southern New England - demand could surge, thanks to a University of Rhode Island scientist's findings.
Navindra Seeram, assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences who specializes in medical plant research, has determined that maple syrup contains 20 compounds beneficial to human health. Among them are anti-oxidants known as phenolics that help prevent cancer and diabetes. Already known was that maple syrup contains the minerals zinc, thiamine and calcium.
"If you're choosing syrup as a sweetener, pure maple syrup has a number of phenolics and high fructose corn syrup does not," Seeram said in a phone interview Friday. "Consumers who want to make healthy choices should have real syrup in their diet."
Seeram presented his research Sunday at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting in San Francisco. His research was funded by a two-year, $115,000 grant from agricultural development groups in Canada, origin of 85 percent of the worldwide maple syrup supply. Though the syrup he analyzed was from Canada, Seeram said he has no reason to believe that syrup from New England is any less rich.
Seeram noted that other plant products high in phenolics, such as berries, have ample exposure to the sun, and sugar maples would be no different. When the sap is boiled to make syrup, the beneficial compounds are concentrated, he surmised. In the next phase of his research, he will analyze raw sap.
Compared to other foods that also contain phenolics, such as red wine, pomegranates and blueberries, maple syrup is unique for containing the largest number of different ones, he said.
Walker, upon hearing about Seeram's findings, thought the new information might be useful to pass along to customers. She may add it to the Web site she and her husband maintain for their sugar shack, or on labels for their syrup and the syrup-containing products they make and sell: maple mustard, maple bread and cookies and their new maple balsamic salad dressing.
While the news about the health benefits of maple syrup are also welcomed by producers like Don Bureau, owner of Bureau's Sugarhouse in Old Lyme, his enthusiasm is somewhat tempered by this year's paltry haul: just 24 gallons, compared to about 125 gallons last year and 130 the year before that. The syrup is bottled and sold at local stores, and used in the maple kettle corn he makes and sells.
"This is our poorest season in 18 years," he said, adding that he was taking the buckets off the trees earlier that normal this year, since there's just no more sap flowing.