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 the Friday Food Fight series, I kept coming across the statement that non-organic maple syrup could contain formaldehyde. I’ve also had some readers ask me for my opinion on it, as organic maple syrup doesn’t fit into their budgets. I wanted to get to the bottom of it and find out if non-organic maple syrup really was a threat of formaldehyde exposure.
What is Formaldehyde?
Most people know that formaldehyde is used in liquid form to embalm bodies. But formaldehyde in building supplies came to attention on the national scene in 2007 when high levels of it were found in the temporary housing units that FEMA had set up for Hurricane Katrina victims, causing illness. Formaldehyde exposure through inhalation can cause dizziness, mucus membrane irritation including runny nose, dry mouth, sore throat, eye infections, bronchitis and other associated mucus membrane issues. Formaldehyde can cause inflammatory responses in the respiratory system including asthma attacks. It can also cause headaches, fatigue and disturbed sleep. Long-term exposure is known to cause cancer.
Formaldehyde can form as a result of many things and is a major component of smog. It’s in cigarette smoke and can be in your home if you use certain wood-burning stoves. If you breathe, it’s kinda hard to avoid all traces of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is given off by build materials used to make walls, cabinets, furniture and other household goods according to the CDC. Formaldehyde elimination is a major component of some green building programs.
Why is it Used in Maple Syrup Production?
Paraformaldehyde (PFA) pellets or tablets were sometimes inserted into the tap to keep the syrup from clotting and the tree from healing, thus allowing more syrup to be gathered with less labor before the end of the season. A tap drilled into a tree will heal and stop producing sap after 4-6 weeks. These pellets enable a producer to get 20-25% more sap from each tree, temporarily dropping their production costs and upping their profit. Research also shows that the pellets can shorten the lifespan of the trees, which can somewhat negate the benefits the producer received.
Banned in the US
Formaldehyde was banned in maple syrup by the EPA removing paraformaldehyde as an approved substance with which to treat maple trees in the US in 1982. Unfortunately, I was not able to track down an online copy of the regulation that removed it from the approved list. However, according to the producers I discussed it with, it’s one of the things maple syrup is regularly tested for in the US and in Canada. There was a legal limit of 2 parts per million of formaldehyde in the finished maple syrup when the pellets were in use.
It has also been illegal in Canada (see page 9) since 1991. So if you’re purchasing your syrup from Canada, it shouldn’t be a concern. PFA tablets haven’t been produced since 1993 as their manufacture is banned by the EPA.
So if you were concerned about formaldehyde in conventional maple syrup, I don’t believe you have any worries. It appears as though the sites that state their products are formaldehyde free are either playing on consumer ignorance on the issue, as all maple syrup should be formaldehyde free, are outdated, or are trying to mislead the consumer into purchasing organic. While I wholeheartedly agree that organic is always the best choice for everyone, I do understand that some families won’t have the budget that can handle it (my family included) and it is best to give the straight facts and allow the family to decide which is best for them.
Conventional maple syrup isn’t completely off the hook, however. Next Friday, we’ll look at another contaminant that does appear in some conventional syrups that you will want to avoid.