What’s That Smell? Wait, What’s That Flavor? A Maple Syrup Taste Test – Fake vs. Real.


New Yorkers may remember back in January, 2009 (and in ’05, ’06, ’07 and ’08), there was this mystery plaguing our city. The watercoolers in Midtown offices were buzzing with workers asking the question, “Why the hell does our city smell like maple syrup?” Even our ridiculously rich mayor couldn’t figure out what was going on. Just like one may walk in the city on a hot summer day and smell wafts of trash cooking on the sidewalk mixed with sauteed onions and garlic, and possibly a hint of sidewalk vendor smoke, during this week you really smelled syrup. In fact, Gothamist blog created an awesome Google Map showing where the majority of calls and e-mails about this phenomenon came from during that time (using oh-so-cute mini Mrs. Butterworth images to pinpoint them on the map).  Also noted, was the maple syrup mystery made its way on to a segment of 30 Rock.

After a lot of investigating, it was discovered that the smell that took over the city was from a North Bergen, New Jersey (god, we really DO love Jersey, we swear) factory that produces “food flavors” (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit) and the culprit of the smell was from the processing of fenugreek seeds.  Many of you may use fenugreek in your cooking — most commonly in cooking Indian food.  But, did you know, fenugreek seeds are also one of the main ingredients used to flavor fake maple syrups (besides nasty things like high fructose corn syrup and sodium hexametaphate, a sequestering agent most commonly found in soap and photography products)? We’re not not joking here.  Yup, you learn something new every day, huh? The maple syrup smell that overtook NYC was not from an actual tree, but from a processing plant across the river. Sigh.


This summer we took a lovely roadtrip to Quebec City for a few days. Driving lazily through New York State, Vermont, and some of Canada was not only relaxing but helped us see some beautiful parts of the great Northeast. We found ourselves at a Vermont Maple Syrup Shack and picked some up. Later on in our trip, we discovered how crazy the Quebecois are for their own maple syrup.  So, yet again, we bought some Canadian Maple Syrup, curious what the flavor difference between this and the Vermont kind would be like.  Growing up on Aunt Jemima, I figured it was a worthwhile experiment to do another blind taste test  (remember our Vodka tasting?) of fake versus real maple syrup. Could we spot the fake? Would we really, really like the real stuff? Would I, GASP!, prefer high fructose corn syrup and refined fenugreek seeds to real sap from an actual tree?

I was actually nervous to eff this one up. Jonny, on the other hand had less to lose — his palate isn’t as trained to spot the fake as mine. He has only had the pleasure of getting to know pancakes as a normal weekend breakfast for the five years he’s been living here in the States. In fact, one of the first interactions he had with my mother (now his mother-in-law) was when he sat down for his first breakfast with the family and mom asked Jonny if he wanted syrup with his pancakes. Without even waiting for an answer (and in typical “Italian-American Mama” fashion) she proceeded to give a death grip squeeze to the plastic Aunt Jemima bottle, dousing his silver dollar Bisquick beauties in the fake stuff. Politely, he changed his side-to-side head-shake to an up-and-down nod saying, “Well, yes. Thank you!”. These days, he knows how to speak up to the Italian-American Mama…. it takes some practice.


So, last night we did a blind taste-test of four kinds of syrup. On the block were two American “fake” favorites: Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth.  On the “real” side were the Vermont “Dark Amber” style syrup and the Canadian Medium 100% maple syrup.  Jonny was blindfolded first and I wrote down his comments. then we switched places.  Here are some of the results of our taste test:


Aunt Jemima

Jonny’s Comments:

  • “Taste like Sunday morning at Rosie’s” (that’s my mom – his mother-in-law.)
  • “Not actually that bad on the whole.”
  • “Caramel backnote, very sweet, burnt-flavor.”

Amy’s Comments:

  • “Less chemical-tasting than #1 (later to find out was Mrs. Butterworth’s) but with an aftertaste of corn syrup.”
  • “Buttery, thick and, I’m going to regret this, but I kinda like it.” (Probably because this is the crap I was brought up on!)

Jonny’s Guess: Aunt Jemima – CORRECT (+1 for Jonny)

Amy’s Guess: Mrs. Butterworth’s – INCORRECT (0 for Amy)



Jonny’s Comments:

  • “Powerful nose!” (LOL – you’d think he was at a wine tasting).
  • “Very sweet, more flavor than #1 (which was Aunt Jemima), more caramel flavored in the mouth.”
  • “Tastes darker and thicker than some of the others – not loving this one.”

Amy’s Comments:

  • “Very sweet, very familiar.”
  • “Gluey, sticky and thick.”
  • “Sugar and caramel in flavor.”

Jonny’s Guess: Vermont Dark Amber Maple Syrup (Oh boy!) – INCORRECT (0 points for Jonny)

Amy’s Guess: Aunt Jemima (at least I knew it was fake!) – INCORRECT (0 points again for Amy)


Pure Vermont Maple Syrup

Jonny’s Comments:

  • “Eww! Very Sugary and sweet.”
  • “Tastes like the bottom of a teacup.”
  • “I don’t like it at all – you need to rely on good pancakes to save that!” (Oh Jonny, you really are going to be embarrassed when you find out that you royally messed up on this one!)

Amy’s Comments:

  • “More natural than the first one (Mrs. Butterworth).”
  • “Less fake sweet and more natural in flavor.”
  • “Almost floral in smell – this one is my favorite.”

Jonny’s Guess: Mrs. Butterworth  – INCORRECT (0 points for Jonny)

Amy’s Guess: Vermont Dark Amber Maple Syrup – CORRECT (1 point for Amy)


Pure Canadian Maple Syrup

Jonny’s Comments:

  • “Much thinner than the others, less viscous.”
  • “I really like this.”
  • “No caramel flavor, cleaner in the mouth and very woody – like freshly cut pine.”

Amy’s Comments:

  • “Stronger and sweeter than #2 (the Vermont Maple).”
  • “Stronger flavor and thinner than 1 & 3 (the two fakes).”
  • “Very nice.”

Jonny’s Guess: Canadian Medium Maple Syrup  – CORRECT (1 point for Jonny)

Amy’s Guess: Canadian Medium Maple Syrup – CORRECT (1 point for Amy)

Well, this experiment proved to be an interesting one.  I grew up with fake maple syrup and I could spot it from a mile away, unlike Jonny.  I was actually disappointed in myself for not nailing the Aunt Jemima test — that was the household favorite back in the day.  One thing that is for sure though, Jonny and I both preferred the real maple syrup.  I enjoyed the Vermont Maple best and Jonny loved the Canadian. The grades of the maple syrup may have made it harder to really do a side-by-side test of the two real ones.  Either way, it was obvious to me that there is a major difference in the texture, flavor and aftertaste of real maple syrup versus fake.  It is worth the cost to get the real deal.  A little goes a long way!  And why would anyone want to put those chemicals in their bodies just to save $9?

Some food for thought – fake maple syrup costs about $28 per gallon to produce where real maple syrup typically sells for around $100 per gallon. The fake stuff is quick, cheap and easy to make.  Why tap a tree for sap when you can make a whole fake bunch of it in something that resembles an oil refinery?

Although Jonny made a huge boo-boo by thinking Vermont Maple syrup was Mrs. Butterworth’s, he doesn’t have the years of expertise that I do. He’s actually eaten more fake syrup while living in American than real. I’d like to say he was at a disadvantage, but I’d encourage you all to seek out some real maple syrup and think twice about what’s in that $1.89 version of “table syrup” you may have been eating for years.

Next, we’re on the hunt for real NY State Maple syrup!  Check out this site if you’re interested too.


34 thoughts on “What’s That Smell? Wait, What’s That Flavor? A Maple Syrup Taste Test – Fake vs. Real.

  1. we did a tasting of local ohio syrups and one fake out and many people failed too. I think it is like those guys who think fake boobs are better–it just shows how pervasive the fako is.

  2. This was hilarious! The fact that the syrup smell was all over New York City cracks me up.

    And gotta love real pure maple syrup. unless you’re in the aisles of whole foods, you almost have to look at the ingredient list/fine print, i’ve seen syrups that say “pure, real, ya di dah” but in fact are just knock-offs with HFCS hidden inside. gross. there are so many different types!

  3. When I lived in Staten Island, I experienced much worse smells than maple syrup emanating from NJ!
    This was a fun post. I’ve often wondered about the taste differential in real vs cheaper version. I guess I’m going to have to pony up the bucks the next time I go shopping.

  4. I feel so sad about GOURMET magazine…….it was the first cooking magazine I subscribed to in 1992.
    Hard to believe, but if the newspapers are going out of business, then of course the magazines are to follow.

    1. i think you’re right stacey. i’m so depressed. there’s nothing i love more than snuggling up with a mag (esp. a food mag). you can never do that with a computer. it sucks. sucks, sucks, sucks, sucks.

  5. Now what about the difference between Grade A and B maple? I’ve always heard that Grade B is better for pancakes. I might have to do a little taste test to find out if it’s really true. If you hear that I stab myself in the lips with a fork, then just assume it was a blind taste test;)

    1. I’m all syruped out – you do this taste test and don’t poke your eye out! i don’t know much about grade a and b… i would think the a would be much more powerful? just a guess. wonder why grade b is better for pancakes? do the taste test – we’ll totally add any info you find to our post!

  6. A very sad day, indeed. The loss of a great magazine is something to be mourned. I know people say it may still live on in the online world. But that world just ain’t the same as having a beautiful, glossy magazine to hold in your hands. Sigh.

  7. Love the taste test between fake and 100% natural maple syrup! Several people writing in had questions about the grades so I thought I’d try to help. There are four grades of pure syrup for you to choose from and there is no “best” grade–they’re all made the same and it’s just a matter of taste, although if you’re cooking or baking with maple syrup it’s better to use Grade A Dark Amber or Grade B as the flavor will be able to stand up against the other flavors in your recipes. The two lighter grades are Vermont Fancy (called Light Amber in other states) and Medium Amber. IF you visit http://www.vermontmaple.org you can read about the grades and about how syrup is made and also look for yummy recipes using maple syrup. Enjoy!

  8. I don’t like admitting this, but I prefer the fake stuff. My family is nuts about real maple syrup, but I just find the taste too strong. I like a butter-soaked waffle with that sweetness blending into the waffle marks. I don’t mind maple in some desserts as long as it’s not too strong, but I jsut can’t get into the taste of real maple syrup.

    1. you could do what my dad does – mixes half real maple syrup w/ the fake stuff. seriously, he does this b/c the real stuff is too strong for him too.

  9. There is a third option between the fake crap and shelling out $9 more for real maple syrup – making your own syrup. Equal parts water and brown sugar, simmered. It’s done by the time the pancakes are really. Flavour it up with cinnamon and orange extract if you’re so inclined and pour it on. Pennies a batch.

  10. I’m SUPER bummed about gourmet too… I’ve been reading it for years and I’m still in denial that it’s over.

    I love the idea of a maple syrup tasting. We always had both real and fake stuff in the house growing up, and while I’m pretty sure I could tell the difference, there are no guarantees!

  11. Hilarious – your Canadian maple syrup is a bottom of the line no-name brand… you can find much, much better maple syrup in roadside stands and markets. By far the best way to get it in Quebec and Ontario are as syrup tarts…like butter tarts, but with maple syrup for the corn syrup and sugar part.

  12. Alex – that’s what we figured, having bought it in a rather down-at-heel supermarket. Nonetheless, we liked it, and given that the point of the tasting was to show that our tastebuds are just as gullible as everyone else’s, we’re pleased we sampled a cross-section both in ingredients and price. And, we ate exactly what you’re describing in the Marche de Vieux-Port in Quebec, plus some fabulous maple butter filled mini-cones. bad-ass.

    Kridabo – thanks for the handy hint! we’ll give that a try when we’ve got through all the real syrup we acquired for this taste test.

  13. You two are so crazy!! He, he… I love how exact and profesional you did the experiment. I wonder how it would taste to me… I’m not used to such supersweet flavours. I just bought my first peanut butter jar. It’s called Peter Pan, do you know it? Is it a good brand?

  14. Núria – that’s the first time anyone has use the words exact and professional to describe our work! And, Peter Pan is like the original American peanut butter. It’s smooth and sweet, and kind of fake-tasting, but i kind of like it. Unsweetened and crunchy peanut butters are available (that’s what we have on our morning toast) but they are more expensive, and I don’t know about whether you can get them in Spain or not. Enjoy!

  15. Is there such thing as 0% maple syrup content. Whyyyy?
    Anyway you guys are too funny. Love the blind test. “Powerful nose”. hahaha

    That story about the food factory in Jersey is scary. eeckk! Yes, you love Jersey. 🙂

  16. I was lucky enough to grow up with Grandparents who had a weekend place in Vermont. My Grandfather made pancakes from scratch and bought syrup from the guy down the road. I’m with Zen. Keep it real- especially since in the Northeast, syrup and honey are the two local sweeteners.

    It’s really funny that you did this. Ruth Reichl would approve… or would she?

  17. I remember that episode of 30 Rock (“does anyone smell waffles?”). I’m glad you didn’t include a spoonful of northrax in your tasting.

    I prefer the real stuff too, though I do have a white trash soft spot for “butter-flavored” syrup. I grew up generic.

    1. It’s great, right!? If you keep posted here you’ll see the delicious thing we made w/ our syrup. A sweet and savory favorite!!

  18. Very interesting post! I love maple syrup, though it’s not something you can find everywhere in Spain. I have it almost everyday for breakfast with my fresh cheese, lovely. I once bought a bottle of Log Cabin and I haven’t even used it, because as soon as I tried I discovered it was a fake. For me it’s not a matter of taste or genuineness, the thing is that the ingredients in fake maple syrup are far less healthy than the ones in the real thing.

  19. $100 a gallon for real maple syrup?? You’ve been getting ripped off! I’ve lived in Vermont all my life and I’ve never paid more than $55 a gallon.

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