Maple syrup isn’t just for breakfast anymore. Sure, it’s great on pancakes and waffles, but there’s so much potential in this antioxidant-rich superfood that you might not know about (unless you’re from New England, in which case, it probably runs in your blood and you know you’re stronger for it).
Beyond being a healthier alternative to sugar, maple syrup is becoming a go-to energy source for endurance athletes who prefer whole, natural foods over refined, processed gels and bars. “It’s still concentrated energy in the form of sugar; just cleaner and simpler than premade pouches … produced naturally from tree sap, ” says registered dietitian Sidney Fry.
ALL THE BENEFITS
As far as sugar goes, maple syrup is an all-natural, minimally processed option that’s basically evaporated maple sap. This means minerals like iron, calcium, zinc, manganese and potassium are left intact. For an athlete, this mineral cocktail may help promote energy production as well as muscle recovery, however its trace amounts aren’t likely to make a huge impact during training or a race.
“During races and other super high-intensity workouts that rapidly deplete our energy stores (glycogen), our body responds best to easily-absorbable calories, preferably in the form of carbohydrates,” says Fry. “It’s one of the few times your body actually needs sugar more than it needs fiber- or protein-packed foods for energy and sustenance.”
Maple syrup is also low on the glycemic index, which means it’s a great source of prolonged energy. “Maple syrup has a glycemic index of 55 — that’s 11 points lower than table sugar — meaning it takes just a wee bit longer to break down (but it’s still rapid enough to refuel muscles during races), prolonging the available fuel-time it has to offer hard-at-work muscles. The lower the GI of a food, the less impact it has on overall blood sugar,” explains Fry. “Maintaining steady levels of blood sugar keeps our bodies more regulated than when sugars spike and plummet — another important factor during an important race.”
Finally, maple syrup is water soluble, which makes it easy to digest and quick to absorb. “Products like GU and other 100-calorie energy pouches are typically some combination of sugar, electrolytes (sodium and potassium), calcium, water and other various extracts and preservatives — I’ve seen nearly 20 ingredients on some pouches. They’re highly processed and expensive for something that’s really just delivering 100 calories of quick energy,” says Fry. “Maple syrup offers the same objective in just one clean, naturally-packaged ingredient. In fact, some of the other extracts, ingredients and additives found in pouches are more inclined to cause GI distress in the middle of your race (including those with higher levels of fructose).”
THE FUEL OF CHOICE FOR ATHLETES
We sat down with the founder of UnTapped All-Natural Athletic Fuel, New Hampshire-native and former pro-cyclist Ted King to talk about fueling with real food, specifically maple syrup.
Q: The simplicity of it is so refreshing in the sports nutrition world. Why maple syrup?
King: I was born and raised in New Hampshire. My mom’s best friend’s father was a grandfather figure to me, and he lived in central New Hampshire. We’d visit his maple sugaring shed in the spring, and it was so etherial to go into the cabin. You see the syrup, smell it, sip hot maple syrup … It stuck with me. Even then, I knew the difference between the real ingredient and the fake, unfortunate stuff that goes onto pancakes these days.
When I was a pro cyclist living in Europe, I’d stockpile maple syrup to take to Europe for 5–10 months. I still had a normal relationship with maple syrup back then. People I didn’t know would show up with some at races. Once, I Googled “nutrition and maple syrup” and found out about electrolytes, amino acids, antioxidants — and that it’s water soluble, which makes it easy to digest. I was sick of the industry