Companies such as Boston-based DRINKmaple, for example, believe that ‘maple water’ should refer exclusively to sap tapped directly from maple trees, and not the water filtered off the sap via reverse osmosis during maple syrup production, or any other maple syrup-related products.
Maple sap is the nutrient-rich sap tapped directly from a maple tree and has a delicate, slightly sweet flavor, and naturally low sugar content.
It can either be drunk immediately during the harvesting season (early spring), or for longer shelf-life commercial products, is typically flash pasteurized and aseptically packaged in Tetrapaks, or bottled and put through a high pressure processing (HPP) process.
Maple sap and maple permeate are completely different products, but both are being described as ‘maple water’
However, other companies have been bottling permeate (a by-product of maple syrup production) and marketing it as ‘maple water’, despite the fact that it is a “completely different product”, Kate Weiler, co-founder of DRINKmaple, told FoodNavigator-USA.
Permeate, argued Weiler, is “basically just distilled water” that is generated during the reverse osmosis (RO) part of the maple syrup production process when most of the water in the sap is filtered off before it is boiled (to evaporate off the remaining water) to create maple syrup.
(During the RO process, the sap is forced under pressure across membranes with pores small enough to restrict the passage of sugar and large molecules, but large enough to allow water molecules to pass through.)
And right now, said Weiler, there is nothing stopping companies from selling this distilled water as maple water, just as there isn’t anything stopping companies from mixing maple syrup or maple flavoring with tap water, and calling the end product ‘maple water’.
“I haven’t got anything against permeate,” said Weiler, “but it’s confusing to call it maple water, as we’re trying to educate people that maple water is maple sap.
“If a product is labeled as maple syrup, it has to adhere to certain standards, otherwise you have to call it ‘pancake syrup’, ‘maple-flavored topping’, or whatever it might be, and we think the same should apply to maple water.”
There is a debate within the industry on this, and there are no perfect solutions
However, you could argue that it is perfectly reasonable to call permeate maple water, as it does come from maple trees, while a better name for the product that DRINKmaple and other ‘maple water’ companies is producing would be ‘maple sap’, for example.
Dr Michael Farrell, director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Sugar Maple Research and Extension Field Station, who has worked closely with many players engaged in this debate, told FoodNavigator-USA:
“There is a debate within the industry on this, and there are no perfect solutions; the one thing everyone agrees on, however, is that we can’t have people calling all of these very different products the same thing, so we must have different names for the different products.”
Valentina Cugnasca, co-founder of New York-based maple water (sap) company Vertical Water, meanwhile, said she had been talking to regulators since early 2013: “From the very beginning we recognized that maple water standards of identity would be important for the development, and success, of this new category.
"In February 2013, Vertical Water began conversations with various entities including the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, the New York State Maple Producers Association, and many maple syrup producers to find a solution. We invite all other maple water manufacturers/producers to join in the conversation.”
International Maple Syrup Institute: ‘We want to get in ahead of the curve’
In a bid to address the problem at this early stage of the category’s development, the International Maple Syrup Institute in Spencerville, Ontario, has since set up a project to establish standards of identity for maple water.
IMSI executive director Dave Chapeskie told FoodNavigator-USA that conversations were still at the early stages, but that it was important to start work on this now, while the category was still in its infancy.
“There is a strong belief that maple water will become more and more prominent in the market and we want to get in ahead of the curve, so we’re talking to producers and researchers about how to take this forward and what should be on product labels so consumers are not confused. Once we have more clarity we will approach state and federal governments in the US and Canada.”
Testing methodology can identify up to 25 phenolic compounds which, in combination, are unique to maple sap
But assuming standards are defined, how easy is it to test the different products on the market to determine if they are what they claim to be?
What is maple water?
Maple sap (which companies such as DRINKmaple and Vertical Water market as ‘maple water’), is tapped directly from maple trees in the early spring. It is not ‘watered-down’ maple syrup (which is made by boiling up maple water) or the water filtered from the sap during the maple syrup production process ('permeate'); it’s not sticky; and it’s not even that sweet.
It's also lower in sugar and calories than coconut water, says Valentina Cugnasca, co-founder of NY-based Vertical Water: “The water comes from the earth, through the roots, and vertically through the trunk and branches, and is constantly replaced.”
The sugar content can vary depending on when the sap is collected, and the location of the trees, while nutrient content will also vary depending on the soil from which the maple trees draw their water, says Cugnasca: "Some regions are known to have a higher calcium content, while others have higher potassium or manganese."
According to David Bell, president of food and nutrition consultancy Bell Advisory Services, a good starting point is the work of Dr. Navindra P. Seeram and colleagues at the University of Rhode Island, Kingston, who have tested maple water to determine its chemical constituents and antioxidant activity following pasteurization.
HPLC tests can identify as many as 25 phenolic compounds which, in combination, are unique to maple sap, he told FoodNavigator-USA*. “It is this chromatograph, Dr. Seeram suggests, which provides a definitive maple sap identity.
“Additional tests have been added to further define nutritive and performance parameters of the sap. These include tests for malic acid, manganese, and ORAC, which quantify significant concentrations of organic acids, mineral, and antioxidant characteristics.
“In combination, the test panel seeks to provide both a signature identity for maple sap and additional parameters which establish performance standards across a broader nutrient profile.”
Bell, who is working with DRINKmaple and a leading analytical lab to define a testing methodology built around Dr. Seeram's maple sap chromatogram, added: "DRINKmaple has taken a leadership role in putting forward a standardized protocol for industry consideration."
Identity and authenticity
If the category is to grow, he added, issues over product identity and authenticity need to be addressed now.
“For the young maple water industry, this means, How do we define maple water, and How do we set industry standards for authentication and quality? Answers to these questions will help clarify the different types of maple beverage products, root out imitators, and provide support for quality control and potential regulatory claims.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Following the publication of this article, some Canadian maple water producers alerted us to the NAPSI maple water certification scheme - set up by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers - which they say is "available for national and international distributors who meet the requirements of the certification". However, US producers noted that this only applied to firms that used maple sap sourced from Quebec. More on this to follow next week!
*Pasteurized and sterilized maple sap as functional beverages: Chemical composition and antioxidant activities. Tao Yuan, Liya Li, Yan Zhang, Navindra P. Seeram*. Journal of Functional Foods, 5 (2013) 1582-1590
See what Kate Weiler had to say about maple water at Expo West this year:
Vertical Water;s Valentina Cugnasca will be speaking at Food Vision USA in October... have you signed up?