Breakfast can spark many questions (like “Sunny side up or scrambled?”), but “What is the difference between maple syrup and pancake syrup?” may be one of the most important—and high-fructose corn syrup is only part of the answer.
I grew up in a pancakes-and-syrup household; not a pancakes-and-syrup-and-butter household, nor a pancakes-and-butter one. Even though a Clipart plate of pancakes always includes a pat of butter, I was happy with my syrup-only stacks. I had no idea, however, that not all syrups were the same. Syrup was syrup—nothing more to investigate! But, if you grew up in a pancake syrup household, as I later learned I did, then you might remember that earth-shattering first taste of real maple syrup.
Because, it’s true: Pancake syrup is not the same as maple syrup. Or, rather, maple syrup is a syrup for pancakes (and waffles), but labeling a product as “pancake syrup” means it is not made of the same stuff as its maple counterpart. That first time I tried real maple syrup, it was sweet, of course, but it had a lot more going on! The maple flavor is a little toasty, maybe floral, and is truly best described by its own name, “maple,” since it’s so unique. After that initial taste of maple syrup, I couldn’t go back—it was too delicious, and too natural.
I’m a sucker for natural, whether or not it’s actually better according to science. I just like the folksy feeling of things coming from nature. So, when I learned about the maple syrup-making process (also known as sugaring), I was hooked.
Deep Mountain Maple describes how sap is tapped from their Vermont maple trees and then boiled to make maple syrup. Maple syrup comes straight from trees. This is verified by reading the ingredients labels for maple syrup. Take a look at this 365 Organic Maple Syrup, or this Butternut Mountain Farm Maple Syrup, and notice what the ingredients say: “Organic Maple Syrup” and “Pure Maple Syrup.” There is literally nothing else in that bottle.
For pancake syrup, however, the number one ingredient is usually corn syrup, followed by high-fructose corn syrup. This is true for both Hungry Jack and Aunt Jemima, with the order of ingredients switched for Mrs. Butterworth’s. Log Cabin touts that they are “the only national brand of table syrup” made without high-fructose corn syrup—though the first ingredient listed in the original variety is still, in fact, regular corn syrup, with sugar following soon after.
Mikuni Wild Harvest Bourbon Barrel Matured Maple Syrup, $29 on Food52
This 100% pure maple syrup is aged in bourbon barrels for an even richer flavor perfect for so much more than just pancakes.
Related Reading: Maple Syrup Producers’ Favorite Ways to Use It
Which Is Better for You?
Nutrition-wise (and specifically, nutritional label-wise), you might be surprised to learn that maple syrup is objectively “sweeter,” at least in terms of grams of sugar. Below is the labeled amount of sugar for 60 milliliters of each type of syrup:
- Butternut Mountain Farm, Grade A Maple Syrup, Amber Color – 53 grams
- 365 Everyday Value, Organic Grade A Maple Syrup, Dark Color – 53 grams
- Mrs. Butterworth’s Original – 47 grams
- Hungry Jack Original – 40 grams
- Aunt Jemima Original – 32 grams
- Log Cabin Original – 26 grams
Log Cabin Original contains the least amount of sugar, with water listed as its second ingredient; conversely, the undiluted maple syrups have the most sugar content. But it’s not refined sugar, so it’s considered a lesser evil by most health-conscious folks, and maple syrup also contains nutrients and minerals like potassium and iron (small amounts, sure, but more than pancake syrup).
If you like to use maple syrup not just on pancakes and French toast, but as a natural sweetener in drinks, desserts (like our maple ice cream below), and other dishes, you might like to know that it has fewer calories and carbs than honey (and is also vegan, if that matters to you).
What’s Up with Different Grades of Maple Syrup?
Finally, while pancake syrup comes in varieties like “Original,” “Lite,” “Sugar-free,” or labeled as butter-flavored or fruit-flavored, maple syrup is meticulously graded, using a newer grading system (so no more Grade B syrup—that’s now known as Grade A Dark, Robust). According to Butternut Mountain Farm, this new method of categorizing maple syrup went into effect in 2014 for Vermont, and 2015 for the rest of the U.S. Based on color and flavor, they are:
- Grade A Golden, Delicate
- Grade A Amber, Rich
- Grade A Dark, Robust
- Grade A Very Dark, Strong
- Processing Grade (for food products, not retail)
Maple Source has a guide for how the old grade system translates to the new, in case mapping historical maple syrup types to current-day grades is your thing (or you just need help at the grocery store).
Runamok Maple Sugarmaker's Cut Maple Syrup, $17.50 at Sur La Table
This is an example of the Grade A Amber style.
Related Reading: How to Make Infused Maple Syrup
It’s all sweet, it’s all syrup, and it’s generally all some type of golden brown. Really, it comes down to taste preference, and perhaps some folksy or scientific beliefs about nature and/or corn-derived sugars. As for me, I’ll stick to my newfound love of maple syrup, because I want to feel like both a fancy lady and a hippie lady, and this is the syrup that helps me achieve these personas.
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Shutterstock and Mrs. Butterworth's/Facebook.