Friday Food Fight: Is Organic Important for Maple Syrup?By
It’s Friday, so its time for another food fight! Every Friday we look at an ingredient, a decision or a process within the real foods sphere. It might be as simple as why you should choose sea salt over iodized salt. It might be more complex, such as what soaking is, how to soak and why you’d want to do it. Grass-fed vs grain-fed. Pastured vs cage-free eggs. What if I can’t afford the best, what’s the next best alternative? All of those decisions that are out in the real food world that are enough to make your head swirl. We’ll take it one bite at a time. Information is always easier to digest when it’s in small pieces.
We’ll start with the easier and move to the complex. As always, we will do so in a good, better, best format, with an eye on the budget. Some weeks, it will be a blog post, other weeks a video.
In researching our last Friday Food Fight about formaldehyde in maple syrup, I hit upon another issue that greatly concerned me. There’s one major difference between organic and conventional outside of the use of pesticides that presents a potential concern. That is the presence of lead.
So now, not only do we have to worry about aluminum in our salt, we also have to be concerned about lead in our maple syrup!
When maple syrup is made, the trees are tapped and out comes a very thin, watery sap. This maple sap doesn’t naturally have any lead present. This sap is transported via a system of pipes and pumps to a building. The building stores the sap until enough is collected. Then it is put onto huge tables that are used to boil down the sap until it reaches a certain thickness, which allows it to then be sold as maple syrup. So how does lead enter the equation?
Lead soldering can be used in the collection buckets and boiling equipment used to make maple syrup. Bronze pumps and equipment with brass fittings used to pump the sap from the tap to the sugaring house can contain lead. Storage vessels after making the maple syrup can also leech lead. There are been several cases of contaminated equipment noted in the marketplace as recent as 2009.
How much lead is allowed in maple syrup? It depends on where it is produced. I saw that 250 parts per billion is allowed in Vermont. The University of Vermont has a nice brochure explaining to farmers how to reduce the lead in their maple syrup. Click here to view the pamphlet.
Lead is bad news and even sub-clinical amounts (levels of lead in your blood below what the lab standards say is ok) have been shown to reduce intelligence in kids according to more than one study (here and here, among others). In other words, any lead exposure looks to be bad. I don’t believe there is any safe level of lead exposure after looking at the studies on how lead reduces intelligence and IQ even at levels considered safe by government standards. Click here to view a number of studies about how lead affects intelligence.
Organic certification requires that no lead-containing equipment be used in the entire process. This is the surest way to avoid the issue of lead in maple syrup. However, I realize that not everyone has the budget for organic. If you choose to purchase conventional maple syrup, ask the producer about their equipment and test results for lead content. The industry began to phase out the use of lead in equipment in the 1990s, but some producers who test their syrups have had problems with lead in equipment since that change.
The issue is that while it was phased out of most products, maple sugaring is normally done on family farms where the equipment might be very old. Apparently some pieces of equipment can last more than a generation. Also, used equipment can be purchased and put to use on a farm.
Since the lead concentrates in little crystals that form during the boiling process, make sure you only purchase clear maple syrups that have had these particles filtered out.