Where does syrup come from?

Syrup is a thick, sticky liquid that is used to sweeten and flavor foods and beverages. The most common types of syrup are made from sugarcane, corn, maple trees, sorghum, and rice. Syrup is produced through various processes depending on the source ingredient. Understanding where different syrups come from and how they are made provides insight into their unique flavors, textures, and best uses.

Sugarcane Syrup

Sugarcane syrup comes from sugarcane, which is a tall grass plant commonly grown in tropical and subtropical regions. To make sugarcane syrup, sugarcane juice is extracted from crushed sugarcane stalks. The juice is then boiled down to evaporate the water content, leaving behind a thick, syrupy concentrate.

Sugarcane syrup often has a light golden color and a subtly sweet, complex flavor. It offers notes of butterscotch, vanilla, and caramel. Sugarcane syrup is popular in Southern U.S. cuisine and is the main ingredient in sweet sorghum syrup.

Sweet Sorghum Syrup

Sweet sorghum is a type of sorghum grass that also produces a sugary syrup. The process for making sweet sorghum syrup is very similar to sugarcane syrup. The juicy stalks are crushed to extract the juice, which is then boiled down into a syrup.

Sweet sorghum syrup has a darker color and richer flavor than sugarcane syrup. It is known for its intense molasses-like taste. Sweet sorghum syrup is sometimes called “sorghum molasses.” It’s primarily produced in the Southern United States.

Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is made from cornstarch derived from corn. There are various processes to convert corn starch into corn syrup, but they all involve breaking down the starch into glucose sugars using enzymes or acids.

The main types of corn syrup are:

  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – Sweeter than regular corn syrup due to higher fructose content
  • Light corn syrup – Lighter color and milder flavor
  • Dark corn syrup – Deeper color and more pronounced flavor

Corn syrup tends to have a mild sweetness and a thick, viscous texture. It is widely used as an inexpensive sweetener and thickening agent in processed foods and beverages, candies, baked goods, jams, and condiments.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a type of corn syrup that has been processed to convert some of its glucose into fructose. This adjustment makes HFCS sweeter than regular corn syrup.

There are two main types of high fructose corn syrup:

  • HFCS 42 – Contains 42% fructose
  • HFCS 55 – Contains 55% fructose

HFCS 42 is typically used in processed foods, baked goods, and condiments. HFCS 55 is often used as a sweetener in soft drinks.

Compared to sucrose (table sugar), HFCS has a smoother, less cloying sweetness. However, it has been controversial due to potential health concerns.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup comes from the sap in maple trees, primarily sugar maple, red maple, and black maple. Maple trees store starch and sugar in their trunks and roots that they convert into sap to fuel spring growth.

Making maple syrup involves:

  1. Tapping maple trees by drilling holes and inserting taps to extract the sap
  2. Collecting and storing the sap
  3. Boiling down the sap to evaporate the water

It takes approximately 40 gallons of maple sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. The syrup is then filtered and graded by color. Lighter syrup has a more delicate flavor while darker syrup is bolder.

Maple syrup is uniquely sweet with subtle caramelized, vanilla, and woody notes. It is prized for its complex flavor that pairs well with pancakes, waffles, oatmeal, and more.

Maple Syrup Grades

Grade Color Flavor
Grade A Light Amber Light golden color Delicate taste
Grade A Medium Amber Slightly darker color Richer flavor
Grade A Dark Amber Robust dark color Strongest maple flavor

Sorghum Syrup

Sorghum syrup is made from the sweet juice extracted from sorghum grass stalks. Similar to sugarcane syrup, the sorghum juice is boiled down into a thick syrup.

There are two main types of sorghum used to produce syrup:

  • Sweet sorghum – Sweeter juice used for syrup production
  • Grain sorghum – More starch content than sugar used for livestock feed

Sorghum syrup has a unique rich, smooth flavor. It’s lighter than molasses but darker than golden syrup. Sorghum syrup is popular drizzled over biscuits, cornbread, pancakes and more in the Southern U.S. It can also be used in place of molasses.

Rice Syrup

Rice syrup, also known as rice malt, is made from cooked rice that has been cultured with enzymes to break down the starches into sugars. The liquid is then strained to remove insoluble particles.

There are two main types of rice syrup:

  • Brown rice syrup – Made from whole grain brown rice; has an amber color and distinct nutty flavor
  • White rice syrup – Made from refined white rice; has a light color and mild flavor

Compared to many other sweeteners, rice syrup is less sweet with a glycemic index around 25. It has a smooth, thick texture similar to honey. Rice syrup can be used in desserts, smoothies, energy bars, and more.

How is Rice Syrup Made?

The process for making rice syrup generally involves:

  1. Cooking rice in water until soft
  2. Adding enzymes to break down starches into maltose and glucose sugars
  3. Heating and straining liquid to obtain syrup
  4. Concentrating syrup through evaporation

The entire process takes multiple hours for the starches to fully convert into sugars. Careful temperature and pH control are required.

Coconut Syrup

Coconut syrup is made from sap extracted from the flowers of coconut palms. The coconut sap is collected by slicing into the unopened coconut flower buds.

The sap drips out and is collected into containers. It is then boiled down to evaporate excess liquid, leaving a thick syrup.

Coconut syrup has a tropical, subtly coconutty flavor. It contains various minerals and amino acids. Coconut syrup can be drizzled over pancakes, toast, oatmeal, fruit and more as a sweetener. It is especially popular in Southeast Asian cuisine.

Agave Syrup

Agave syrup, also called agave nectar, comes from the agave plant, which grows in hot, arid climates like the Southwestern United States and Mexico. The core of the agave plant stores carbohydrates which are extracted and processed into syrup.

There are two main processes to make agave syrup:

  1. Heating the agave juice – The juice is extracted from the core and boiled at low temperatures to break down its components into simple sugars.
  2. Enzyme treatment – The core extract is treated with enzymes that break down its carbohydrates into sugars.

The final agave syrup has a mild, slightly fruity sweetness. Its glucose content gives it a medium glycemic index of around 30. Agave syrup can substitue for honey, maple syrup, or sugar in drinks, desserts, and other foods.

Palm Syrup

Palm syrup comes from the sap of various palm trees and palm flowers. It is commonly made from the date palm, palmyra palm, and coconut palm.

The process involves:

  1. Tapping into the palm to extract the sap
  2. Collecting the sap in containers
  3. Boiling down the sap over heat to evaporate excess liquid

Palm syrup varies in color from golden to dark brown. It has a rich taste reminiscent of caramel and maple syrup. Palm syrup is nutritious and contains potassium, magnesium, iron, and B vitamins.

It can be used as a sweetener for a variety of foods and beverages. Palm syrup is especially common in North African and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Birch Syrup

Birch syrup is made from the sap of birch trees, typically paper and yellow birches. The process is very similar to maple syrup production:

  1. Tapping birch trees and collecting sap
  2. Boiling down the sap to evaporate water

It takes approximately 100 gallons of birch sap to make 1 gallon of birch syrup. The syrup can range in color from light golden to dark amber.

Birch syrup has hints of molasses, butterscotch, and cherry. It has a lower sugar content than maple syrup so the flavor is not as cloyingly sweet. Birch syrup goes well with pancakes, ice cream, baked goods, vegetables, and more.

Barley Malt Syrup

Barley malt syrup is made from sprouted, malted barley grain. The steps include:

  1. Soaking and sprouting the barley to activate enzymes
  2. Drying and crushing the barley malt
  3. Mixing the malt with hot water to extract the sugars
  4. Straining and boiling down the liquid into syrup

The sprouting process converts the barley’s starches into fermentable sugars. Barley malt syrup has a dark brown hue and thick, molasses-like consistency. It has a unique flavor described as a combination of malt, coffee, and caramel.

Barley malt syrup contains maltose and other complex sugars. It can be used as a sweetener in baked goods, dressings, marinades, and smoothies. It also works as a natural caffeine-free coffee substitute.

Comparison of Syrups

Syrup Source Flavor Color Uses
Maple Maple tree sap Vanilla, caramel, woody Golden to dark amber Pancakes, oatmeal, baking
Corn Cornstarch Mildly sweet Light to dark amber Sweetener, baking, candy
Agave Agave plant Mildly sweet, fruity Light to dark amber Sweetener for drinks, baking
Palm Palm tree sap Caramel Golden to dark brown Sweetener, pastries, porridge
Coconut Coconut palm sap Subtly coconutty Light amber Pancakes, oatmeal, porridge


Syrups are made from a wide variety of plants and grains through processes of extracting and reducing down the sap or juices into concentrated, viscous sweeteners. The source ingredient determines the unique flavor, color, texture, and best uses of the syrup.

Maple, sugarcane, corn, and sorghum syrups are some of the most common varieties. More exotic syrups like coconut, palm, and birch offer tropical, fruity, butterscotch-like flavors. Understanding the origins of different syrups provides insight into their culinary applications.

Leave a Comment