Is darker maple syrup better?

Maple syrup is a popular natural sweetener produced by boiling down the sap of maple trees. It ranges in color from light golden to dark amber. Many believe that darker maple syrup has a richer flavor and is higher quality than lighter syrup. But is this really true? Let’s take a closer look at how maple syrup gets its color and flavor to find out if darker maple syrup is actually better.

What gives maple syrup its color?

The color of maple syrup depends on various factors:

  • Tree genetics – Some maple tree species and individual trees produce sap that is darker or lighter naturally.
  • Time of season – Early season sap is lighter in color while late season sap is darker.
  • Length of boiling – The longer the sap is boiled, the darker the syrup becomes.
  • Minerals – Darker syrup tends to have higher mineral content like calcium, manganese, and iron.

The most significant factor is the length of time the sap is boiled. As the water evaporates, the sugar concentration rises which darkens the syrup’s color. Syrup boiled for a short time will be light golden, while syrup boiled for longer becomes progressively darker.

Maple syrup grades

Maple syrup is classified into grades based on its color and flavor:

  • Grade A Light Amber – Light golden color with delicate flavor
  • Grade A Medium Amber – Slightly darker color with a richer maple flavor
  • Grade A Dark Amber – Robust, molasses-like flavor
  • Grade B – Very dark with strong maple flavor, used for cooking

Darker syrups tend to have a stronger “maple” flavor while lighter syrups are more subtle. But flavor is a subjective thing, neither is necessarily better. It comes down to personal preference.

Nutrition content

One common perception around maple syrup grades is that darker syrup is more nutritious. But in reality, the nutrition content of maple syrup varies little across grades.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), these are the nutrition facts for maple syrup grades:

Nutrient Per 100 g Per tbsp (15g)
Calories 260 39
Carbohydrates 67g 10g
Added sugars 60g 9g
Fat 0g 0g
Protein 0g 0g
Calcium 72mg (7% DV) 11mg (1% DV)
Iron 1.4mg (8% DV) 0.2mg (1% DV)
Manganese 265mcg (11% DV) 40mcg (2% DV)
Potassium 212mg (4% DV) 32mg (1% DV)

As you can see, the calorie, carbohydrate, sugar, fat, protein, vitamin, and mineral content does not significantly differ between grades. Any minor differences are negligible.

While darker syrups may contain slightly more minerals, the amounts are trivial – you would have to consume a large quantity of syrup to obtain substantial mineral intake. Overall, grades provide equivalent nutritional value.

Antioxidants in maple syrup

Some research suggests that darker maple syrup grades may contain higher levels of antioxidants.

Antioxidants are compounds that help neutralize harmful free radicals in our bodies. They have anti-inflammatory effects and may lower risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.

Specific antioxidant found more in darker syrup grades:

  • Lignans – a type of phenolic antioxidant
  • Coumaric acid – a phenolic acid with antioxidant properties

However, the antioxidant differences between light and dark maple syrup are still relatively small. Both provide antioxidant health benefits.

Maple syrup production

To produce syrup of any grade, maple sap is harvested from trees and boiled to evaporate water. The entire process is natural with no additives.

Early and late season sap

Early in the sugaring season, temperatures are colder resulting in lighter sap. Syrup produced from this has a light golden hue.

Late in the season, trees are more metabolically active so sap is darker and richer. This makes darker syrup.

Boiling process

Lighter syrup is produced by boiling for a shorter length of time. To achieve medium amber grades, sap is boiled for longer until approximately 2/3 of the water evaporates.

The longest boil times create dark amber and Grade B syrup, removing nearly all the water. Extended boiling caramelizes the maple sugars resulting in bold flavor and very thick syrup.


Filtering also impacts color. Syrup filtered through traditional wool or paper filters results in lighter grades.

Unfiltered syrup or synthetic filters allow more components through like minerals, fibers, and phenolic compounds. This retains the darker color and fuller maple taste.

Blending syrups

Maple producers may blend syrups of various grades to create a desired shade and consistency. Lighter syrup can be mixed with darker syrup to make medium amber grades.

Blending also ensures consistency across batches. Naturally, each tree and batch will yield slightly different syrup.

Maple syrup taste and uses

The taste and optimal uses of maple syrup ultimately depend on personal preference.


Here are the flavor profiles of maple syrup grades:

  • Light amber – Subtle, delicate maple flavor. High sweetness.
  • Medium amber – Balanced maple taste with moderate sweetness.
  • Dark amber – Robust, malted maple flavor. Less cloyingly sweet.
  • Grade B – Strongest maple taste with caramelized notes. Least sweet.

There is no right or wrong flavor. Choose the grade you enjoy most.


  • Light amber is ideal for drizzling over pancakes or waffles where you want the maple to take a backseat to other flavors.
  • Medium amber works well as an all-purpose table syrup and as a straight-up pancake topping.
  • Dark amber has a more assertive maple flavor that stands up to other ingredients. Use it in baking, oatmeal, barbecue sauces, vinaigrettes.
  • Grade B syrup adds a pronounced maple taste in cooking applications like baked beans and maple candies.

Again, feel free to experiment with any grade in different dishes.

Grade Best uses
Light amber Drizzling on pancakes or waffles, dipping with fresh fruit
Medium amber All-purpose table syrup, topping pancakes
Dark amber Baking, oatmeal, barbecue sauce, salad dressings
Grade B Cooking like baked beans, candies, maple sugar

Price differences

Why darker syrup costs more

Darker maple syrup tends to cost more than lighter syrup. There are a few reasons why:

  • Takes more sap – More sap is boiled down to make darker syrup so production costs are higher.
  • Later season – Dark syrup comes from sap harvested later in the season when yields are lower.
  • Stronger flavor – Robust dark syrup is considered a premium gourmet product.
  • Higher demand – More consumers think darker grades taste better, driving up demand.
  • Limited supply – Darker syrup makes up a smaller share of total yield, so supply is constrained.

These supply and demand factors result in Grade A Dark Amber and Grade B costing on average $5-10 more per bottle than Grade A Light Amber.

Price per grade:

Grade Average retail price (16 oz bottle)
Grade A Light Amber $12.99
Grade A Medium Amber $14.99
Grade A Dark Amber $17.99
Grade B $18.99

Keep in mind prices vary by retailer. Shopping sales can help find deals on any grade.

Environmental impacts

Some believe choosing darker maple syrup is better for the environment. But the differences are minimal when considering the full production process.

Boiling efficiency

Dark syrup does require more boiling which consumes fuel and energy. However, much of the industry uses efficient reverse-osmosis filtration to remove water before boiling. This minimizes the boiling time needed regardless of grade.

Sap collection

Collecting sap has the biggest environmental impact, involving materials for tubing and taps plus fuel for transport. But this collection step is identical no matter the final syrup color.

Packaging and transport

Once produced, all grades go through the same bottling, packaging, storage, and transportation to market. The effect on emissions is similar.

Overall, while going from light to dark syrup may incrementally increase energy use, the differences are quite small in the full syrup-making process.


So is darker maple syrup really better? The answer depends on what you consider “better.”

  • Nutrition – Grades have negligible differences in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
  • Flavor – Darker syrup has a stronger maple taste, but palates vary.
  • Price – Darker syrup does cost more due to supply constraints.
  • Sustainability – Production impacts are similar across all maple syrup grades.

While deeper flavors and colors appeal to many, lighter syrup offers an equally delightful and nutritious maple experience at a lower price point.

The “best” syrup ultimately comes down to your taste preferences, cooking needs, budget, and values. Any grade of pure maple syrup makes for a delicious, all-natural flavor that you can feel good about enjoying.

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