Maple Syrup Science and Nutrition – International Maple Syrup Institute
Dr Navindra Seeram
Photo by Nora Lewis
Graphic courtesy of the American Chemical Society
Dr. Navindra Seeram is the world’s premiere maple scientist. He leads a team of scientists at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy, who have been researching pure maple for 11 years. The International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI) met with him on December 15, 2020 to find out more about his research. Dr. Seeram is an expert in polyphenols and maple syrup chemistry. You can find out more by going to the University of Rhode Island website at https://web.uri.edu/maple/.
IMSI: Navindra, thank you for being here for our Maple News readers. We often hear about maple syrup being healthy, what exactly makes it healthy?
Seeram: In natural product studies we say that ‘nature is the best chemist’. Through our laboratory research, we found that maple syrup contains several natural plant compounds (phytochemicals) with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that are healthy for the human body. I like to think of maple syrup as the ‘smarter sweetener’ because it provides a natural alternative to refined sugar and chemical sweeteners given its vitamin and mineral content and the several potential health benefits of polyphenols. Few, if any, other natural sweeteners have the diverse antioxidant cocktail of beneficial compounds that it has.
IMSI: Can you elaborate on the biochemistry for us, non-science laypeople?
Seeram: Sure, over the past decade, our research identified and evaluated the biological effects of several phytochemicals from maple syrup, maple sap, and maple plant parts and their derived extracts. Maple syrup contains mono-and disaccharides primarily as sucrose and complex sugars such as oligosaccharides, minerals, amino acids, organic acids, phytohormones, vitamins, and phytochemicals. Maple syrup alone contains more than 67 bioactive phytochemicals with potential health benefits.
IMSI: And you and your team are focusing on phytochemicals, right?
Seeram: Yes, we isolated and identified many phytochemicals in maple syrup. It contains a diverse cocktail of different chemical sub-classes of phytochemicals known as polyphenols which are found in several other healthy plant foods including flaxseed, tea, berries, and red wine. Amazingly, these molecules are all found in one ‘sweet’ package and it’s remarkable that many compounds which naturally occur in maple sap survive the concentration process to persist in maple syrup and co-exist along with others that are formed in the boiling process such as Quebecol. Maple syrup delivers a “triple whammy” of unique chemical composition of macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytochemicals in maple syrup.
IMSI: You’re so passionate about maple, can you tell us what brought you to study maple?
Seeram: I grew up in British Guiana (now, Guyana), a poor country, and the only English-speaking country in South America. My great grandparents were indentured servants brought from India to work in sugar cane plantations. With limited pharmacies and medicines available, traditional botanical remedies were used instead. I remember my grandmother making tea from turmeric for my tummy ache. Early exposure to botanicals triggered my interest in the chemistry of medicinal plants and their functional benefits.
IMSI: Fascinating, so, you left your country to study medicinal plants?
Seeram: Yes, I left Guyana in my youth for Jamaica after earning my undergraduate degree in chemistry. I studied and worked to support myself and ended up earning my doctorate in natural products chemistry, conducted my post-doctoral studies at Michigan State University, and then worked at UCLA before moving to the University of Rhode Island. I’ve been studying the health benefits of phytochemicals for over 20 years. In California I worked with pomegranates, berries, and tree nuts. In 2010, I was approached by the Quebec Maple Syrup Producers Federation to study maple. I realized that maple sap is like a ‘life blood’ that contains essential nutrients that the fascinating maple species need to grow new buds and leaves in the spring. Not much had been published before but there were some indications that polyphenols were present in sap. I saw a whole new world to discover which would be impactful to the people of the region where I was now living and conducting research.
IMSI: What makes you so passionate about maple?
Seeram: Maple syrup is an incredibly unique plant food, obtained entirely from deciduous tree sap, not only for its natural product composition but also because it’s minimally processed from a pure botanical provenance with no additives. That would be unique in itself but now add that its niche and indigenous to a relatively small region of North America, it’s a culturally iconic food produced by thousands of local farmers practicing sustainable forestry. That’s what makes it so special.
IMSI: Navindra, thank you for your time today and for the great maple research you do.