Feature

The Sweet Science

Researchers at URI are tapping into the potential of RI’s state tree – the maple

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Hard of wood, tall of stature, and a leaf-peeper’s delight come fall, the maple is the national symbol of Canada, the state tree of Rhode Island, and the only tree adopted as a mascot by a professional hockey team. As hinted in its scientific name, A. saccharum, the sugar maple also is the prime source for the maple syrup we pour onto our morning pancakes and — I can’t be the only one — bacon, too.

And while eating strips of fried fatty pork drenched in syrup probably won’t help maintain your youthful appearance, new research from the University of Rhode Island suggests that an extract derived from the mighty maple could.

Like the sugar maple, red maples (Acer rubrum, if you want to be formal) can be tapped for maple sugar, but the study unveiled in August at a meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) by researcher Navindra P. Seeram, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at URI’s College of Pharmacy, was more interested in its ruddy leaves.

Seeram, research associate Hang Ma, Ph.D., and colleagues at URI found that compounds in maple leaves called GCGs might also prevent wrinkles by inhibiting the enzyme elastase, which breaks down the elastin that keeps skin smooth and supple. The researchers gave the compound the name “Maplifa” in a nod to its sylvan origins and have licensed it to a botanical extracts supplier, Verdure Sciences, to develop possible cosmetic uses.

“You could imagine that these extracts might tighten up human skin like a plant-based Botox, though they would be a topical application, not an injected toxin,” said Seeram at the ACS conference. “Many botanical ingredients traditionally come from China, India, and the Mediterranean, but the sugar maple and the red maple only grow in eastern North America.”

“I’d be particularly excited to have that kind of material as we consider developing products going forward,” says Brenda Brock, founder of Portsmouth-based natural skincare products company Farmaesthetics. “It’s so exciting to have research facilities like those at URI looking into how to harness these crops. I’ll be knocking on their door soon to talk more about this.”

Seeram has stumped for research into the uses of the maple tree ever since arriving at URI from the West Coast 11 years ago as an expert in the plant-based foods traditionally used as medicine.

“It didn’t take me long to realize that maple syrup is only produced in the eastern part of North America,” thanks to the annual freeze-thaw cycle and the local abundance of sugar and red maple trees from Quebec through New England and south to New York, he said. “I’m originally from South America and we didn’t have pancakes and maple syrup, so this was a learning experience. We look at plants from all over the world, but these were exotic to me.”

One of the first things Seeram learned is that there’s a lot more to maple sugar — derived from sap tapped from trees, and later condensed into syrup — than sweet sucrose, including vitamins and minerals pulled from the soil, plant antioxidants, hormones, and amino acids. Publishing more than 50 scientific papers has made the URI College of Pharmacy the leading center for research on the composition and uses of maple products.

“We know more about maple chemistry than any other group in the world,” Seeram asserts with confidence.

Maple syrup, of course, is the most well-known and commonly maple product; it’s also the largest commercial crop derived from the sap of trees. Tim Perkins, director of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, said that 150 million pounds of maple syrup are produced in North America each year.

Maple syrup is more expensive ounce-for-ounce than olive oil or crude oil — you need to boil down 40 gallons of maple sap to get a single gallon of maple syrup — despite the fact that technology has helped double sap extraction over the past two decades, according to Perkins. “Thirty or 40 years ago you needed an army of people to make maple syrup,” he said. “It’s somewhat less labor and energy intensive now.”

Still, sugaring is not something you’d want to do as a hobby: Perkins estimates that in addition to hours of labor it would likely cost $100 in energy alone to make a gallon of homemade syrup.

But you can’t think about money alone when choosing from real maple syrup and so-called “pancake syrup” like Mrs. Butterworth or Aunt Jemima, both of which contain high fructose corn syrup and not a drop of maple syrup. “There’s a demand for a product that is an alternative to corn syrup and, if you’re going to use sugar, has better health benefits,” said Perkins.

“We don’t want to encourage overconsumption of sugar, but rather to educate consumers that if they’re concerned about getting vitamins and minerals and antioxidants, this is a natural sugar,” Seeram added.

In addition to syrup and maple leaves — which Native Americans used medicinally — URI researchers are also looking at maple bark as a possible source of medicine. That’s not as far-fetched as it might seem: the cancer-fighting drug Taxol is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. Seeram said that one animal study hinted that a maple bark extract could lower blood glucose levels after a high-carbohydrate meal, which could help people with diabetes.

URI researchers have isolated more than 67 chemicals found in maple sugar and syrup, including Quebecol, a polyphenol that could have anti-inflammatory properties. “They’re on the forefront of the industry in discovering the compounds in maple products,” said Perkins.

Pasteurized maple water, which flows from maple trees in the early fall, also is sold by companies like DRINKmaple as an alternative to coconut water with similar health claims. And Seeram points out that the bold, rich flavor of maple syrup remains unknown in places like India, a country with a notorious sweet tooth and a $1.5 billion candy market.

Seeram’s enthusiasm for the maple is dimmed somewhat by climate change, which could cause Rhode Island’s population of maples to eventually recede. “It’s disturbing to think that a few generations down the road there might not be any maples or maple syrup,” he said.

Perkins acknowledges that climate change could shift the maple population north, but said such a change would likely take “thousands of years.” On the other hand, he said, warmer winters could make maple sugaring less efficient and profitable.

For now, fortunately, Rhode Island’s state tree still grows strong and proud, delivering a sweet bounty each spring and yielding new discoveries to researchers. Rhode Island currently has but a handful of commercial maple syrup producers — Exeter’s Spring Hill Sugar House is probably the best known — but Seeram sees a huge potential market for maple-derived products in the state.

“Maple trees could be a niche North American crop,” Seeram said. “It’s an untapped resource for Rhode Island.”