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Quebec Scientists Brand One of the 54 Unpronouncable Chemicals in Maple Syrup

What "Quebecol" means for the science and business of regional foods.

As I wrote yesterday, the flavors and aromas of maple syrup are bound up in its geography, processing, and its chemistry—most notably, sucrose and vanillin. Its chemistry became interesting recently, when a University of Rhode Island study, funded by the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers and Agri-Food Canada, found 54 different chemical compounds, including—bear with me—2,3,3-tri-(3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenyl)-1-propanol. Researchers said this compound appeared to be unique to maple syrup and dubbed it Quebecol.

The Quebec Maple Syrup Board took that as an opportunity to tout maple syrup's health benefits—much like Pom Wonderful underwrites studies demonstrating the antioxidant content of its pomegranate juices. Others were quick to point out that quantifying maple syrup's phytochemistry was neither a sign of quality nor an indication of its possible effects in our bodies (which the study did not test). Joe Schwarcz, the director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society, told Post Media News: "Any suggestion that [maple syrup] is 'healthy' is irresponsible and may make scientifically shallow people eat more."

Quebecol's "discovery" raises questions about what happens when academia brands compounds found in foods with an identifiable geographic marker, especially when that same research has been sponsored. Would Quebecol be found in maple syrup from Vermont or New York? As Tim Johnson wrote in the Burlington Free Press, Vermont maple syrup makers don't appear to be claiming any compounds as Vermontol. Either way, the research demonstrates that maple syrup has many complex, sometimes unpronouncable compounds—a sure sign that those well-worn foodie aphorisms ("If You Can't Say It, Don't Eat It") don't always provide sound advice.

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