Is syrup healthy or unhealthy?

Syrup is a commonly used sweetener in foods and beverages. It comes in many forms, with some of the most popular being maple syrup, corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, and molasses. Syrup contains sugars like sucrose, glucose, and fructose, which provide a sweet taste. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether syrup is a nutritious choice or an unhealthy source of empty calories and added sugar. This article will explore the nutritional profile of different syrups, potential health benefits and risks, and look at the current recommendations for syrup consumption.

Types of Syrup

There are many varieties of syrup available today. Here is an overview of some of the most common types:

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees. It goes through an evaporation process to turn the sap into a thick, sweet syrup. Maple syrup contains sugars, minerals like potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and antioxidants called polyphenols. It has a glycemic index of 54 and contains some nutrients like zinc, manganese, and iron.[1]

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is made from cornstarch. It consists almost entirely of the sugars glucose and fructose. Corn syrup comes in several varieties like high fructose corn syrup, which is higher in fructose. It often contains additions like vanilla, salt, and sugars. It has very little innate nutritional value beyond carbohydrates and calories.[2]


Honey is produced by bees from flower nectar. It contains fructose and glucose as well as trace amounts of nutrients like calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, and vitamin B6. The composition can vary based on the floral source. Honey has a glycemic index ranging from 35-64. Raw honey may contain antioxidants and enzymes but these can be destroyed by heat processing.[3]

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar comes from the agave plant. It is high in fructose, typically containing 70-90% fructose and 20-30% glucose. Agave has a glycemic index of 15, lower than sugar’s GI of 65. It also contains small amounts of calcium, iron, and potassium.[4]


Molasses is a byproduct of sugar refining. It is thick and brown with a robust flavor. Molasses contains vitamins and minerals like vitamin B6, magnesium, calcium, iron, and potassium. It also contains antioxidants. The glycemic index of molasses ranges from 55-75, depending on variety.[5]

Nutritional Profile

The nutritional value of syrup can vary substantially based on the type. Here is a look at some of the key nutritional facts:


Most syrups are high in calories since they contain sugars. One tablespoon of syrup can range from 44-64 calories depending on variety.[6] This can add up quickly, so moderation is recommended when adding syrup to foods or beverages.

Sugar Content

Syrups are predominantly made up of simple sugars like sucrose, glucose, and fructose. These provide a sweet taste, but also mean syrup is high in carbohydrates without offering much nutritional benefit. Some syrups are almost entirely sugar. For example, light corn syrup is 94% sugar.[7]

Added vs. Natural Sugars

Some syrups like maple syrup and honey contain naturally occurring sugars. However, many others like corn syrup contain added sugars that are introduced during processing and refining. The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugars to 5-10% of total calories.[8]

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) measures how quickly a food raises blood sugar. Syrups vary in their GI values. For example, pure maple syrup has a GI of 54 while table sugar has a GI of 65.[9] Lower glycemic foods may provide more gradual, sustained energy.

Vitamins and Minerals

Some syrups like molasses and maple syrup contain trace amounts of vitamins and minerals. However, most syrups including corn syrup, honey, and agave nectar do not contain significant amounts of key vitamins and minerals. Syrup should not be depended on as a key nutrient source.


Syrups like maple syrup and honey contain beneficial antioxidants like polyphenols and enzymes.[10] However these delicate micronutrients can be damaged and lost through heating and processing. Raw or less processed syrups may offer more antioxidants.

Potential Benefits of Syrup

In moderation, some types of syrup may offer certain benefits:

Sweet Taste with Less Refined Sugar

The sweet taste of syrup can satisfy a craving for sugar while providing less refined sucrose or high fructose corn syrup. Maple syrup and honey both have lower glycemic impact compared to white sugar.[11]

Source of Antioxidants

Antioxidants in maple syrup and raw honey help combat free radicals and reduce oxidative damage related to inflammation, aging, and disease. However, antioxidants are sensitive to processing.[12]

Prebiotics in Honey and Maple Syrup

Honey and maple syrup contain prebiotics that support the good bacteria in your gut microbiome. This helps increase immune and digestive health.[13]

Phytonutrients in Maple Syrup

Compounds like polyphenols, lignans, and coumarins found in maple syrup may provide anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and disease-fighting benefits.[14]

Low Glycemic Impact of Some Syrups

The lower glycemic response of certain syrups like maple and agave nectar may help regulate blood sugar levels compared to table sugar.[15]

Potential Health Risks of Syrup

Despite some benefits, there are also some potential health concerns with syrup:

High in Sugar and Calories

With up to 20 grams of sugar per tablespoon, syrup is high in added sugars that lack nutrients. The extra calories from added sugars are linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.[16]

Blood Sugar Spikes

The carbohydrates and sugars in syrup can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar when consumed in excess. This is concerning for diabetes management.[17]

Dental Cavities

Syrup’s sweetness and stickiness can lead to more dental plaque and risk of cavities compared to other sweeteners.[18]

Hyperactivity in Children

For children, syrup may contribute to hyperactivity, inattention, and sleep disturbances compared to less sugary foods.[19]

Lacking in Essential Nutrients

Since most syrups contain little beyond carbohydrate sugars, they provide empty calories and do not supply protein, healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, or minerals.

Antibiotic Contamination in Honey

Raw honey can sometimes become contaminated with antibiotic residue from bees. This can interfere with health benefits and antibiotic efficacy.[20]

Current Recommendations for Syrup Intake

Health organizations provide the following guidance around syrup consumption:

Limit Added Sugars

The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars like corn syrup to no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams) for men.[21]

Moderation is Key

Enjoying syrup occasionally in small portions can be part of a healthy diet. But excessive intake should be avoided given the high calorie content.[22]

Consider Lower Glycemic Options

Choosing lower glycemic impact syrups like maple syrup and agave nectar over table sugar may offer slightly better blood sugar control.[23]

Avoid Giving Honey to Infants

Honey should be avoided for children under 1 year old due to the risk of infant botulism, a serious illness.[24]

Select Raw or Organic When Possible

Raw, organic syrups like maple syrup or raw honey undergo less refining and may contain more antioxidants and beneficial enzymes.[25]

How is Syrup Commonly Used?

Syrup is used in both sweet and savory foods in several ways:

As a Pancake or Waffle Topping

Maple syrup is commonly drizzled over pancakes, waffles, and French toast for breakfast. Light amber grades provide milder flavor.[26]

In Baking and Desserts

Syrup can add moisture, sweetness, and flavor to cakes, cookies, bars, and pies. Corn syrup helps maintain texture in ice creams.[27]

As a Sauce or Marinade

Maple syrup, honey, and molasses are popular components of savory sauces and marinades for grilled or roasted dishes like chicken, salmon, or pork.[28]

In Beverages and Cocktails

Syrup sweetens hot and cold beverages ranging from coffee to cocktails. Honey and maple syrup work well in lattes while agave nectar suits margaritas.[29]

As a Sugar Substitute in Recipes

In baking, syrup can replace up to half of the granulated sugar called for in a recipe. Reduce liquids slightly to account for syrup’s moisture.[30]

To Sweeten Cereals and Yogurt

A drizzle of maple syrup or honey on oatmeal, granola, or yogurt adds natural sweetness, depth of flavor, and moisture.

Alternatives to Syrup

For those looking to cut back on added sugars or calories from syrup, some alternatives include:

Fresh Fruit

Topping foods with fresh bananas, berries, peaches, or other fruit adds sweetness with fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and less concentrated sugars.[31]

Pureed Fruit

Unsweetened applesauce or pureed fruit makes an easy 1:1 swap for syrup in recipes. It provides natural sweetness and moisture.[32]

Monk Fruit or Stevia

These zero-calorie, plant-based sweeteners provide intense sweetness while avoiding extra sugars.[33]

Yogurt or Cottage Cheese

Topping pancakes or French toast with yogurt or cottage cheese offers protein, calcium, and natural sweetness.[34]

Nut Butters

A thin layer of almond or peanut butter on toast or pancakes gives a nutty, sweet crunch without excess sugars.[35]

Extracts like Vanilla or Almond

Adding a few drops of extract can provide sweetness for far fewer calories than syrup.[36]

Is Syrup Vegan?

The vegan status depends on the type of syrup:

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is vegan as it is simply evaporated maple tree sap. No animal products are used.[37]

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup avoids animal-derived ingredients, making it a vegan option.[38]


Honey is not vegan since it comes from bees. Vegans should avoid honey.[39]

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar comes from agave plants so it is animal-free and suitable for vegans.[40]


Molasses contains no animal products. It is considered a vegan sweetener.[41]

Environmental Considerations with Syrup

There are some key environmental impacts to consider with syrup production:

Deforestation for Palm Plantations

Palm syrup comes from the African oil palm tree. Expanding palm plantations for palm oil and syrup has led to deforestation in Southeast Asia.[42]

Pesticides in Large Corn Monocultures

Most corn syrup comes from heavily sprayed industrial corn monocrops. Pesticide runoff harms local ecosystems and wildlife.[43]

Sustainable Tapping of Maple Syrup

While tapping maple trees for sap removes essential nutrients, sustainable tapping practices can maintain tree health and regeneration each season.[44]

Threats to Bee Populations

Climate change, mites, pesticides, and disease threaten bee populations needed for honey production and wider food crop pollination.[45]

Water Usage in Refining Processes

It takes significant water to produce many types of syrup, especially in the refining stages. This can strain local water supplies.[46]


Syrup can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet, but excessive intake should be limited due to the high sugar and calorie content. Maple syrup and raw honey contain more beneficial nutrients and antioxidants than heavily processed corn or palm syrups. Checking ingredients, being mindful of portions, and selecting organic, sustainable sources can optimize the nutrition of syrup while limiting environmental impact. Syrup alternatives like fruit, yogurt, nut butters, and extracts can also help cut back on added sugars. Overall, keeping syrup to an occasional treat, opting for less refined varieties, and practicing portion control is the healthiest approach.

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