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Maple syrup flavour research

Scientists from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are working to shine a spotlight on the wealth of flavoursFootnote1 found in maple products. The Saint-Hyacinthe Research and Development Centre in Saint-Hyacinthe conducted this extensive study in cooperation with Centre ACER (in French only). The study was designed to help the maple syrup industry focus on developing (high quality or local) niche products thereby ensuring its long-term success.

The basic research work seeks to understand how maple syrup acquires its flavour. The first step was to develop the Maple Flavour Wheel, a precise vocabulary that describes and documents the flavours specific to maple products. The research will enable scientists to expand their knowledge of maple syrup's composition and identify the components behind its flavour and characteristic aromas.

Maple syrup flavour research

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) has been conducting research on the flavour of maple syrup since 1998. A partnership between Jacinthe Fortin and Nancy Graveline of the Food Research and Development Centre and researchers at the Centre ACER (in French only) has been trying to establish solid bases to characterize the taste of maple syrup.

The impetus of the process was the development of a flavour wheel to help the industry rate maple syrup other than by its colour and defects. The term flavour, from Old French, encompasses all notes of taste and smell comprised in a gustatory experience, as opposed to the basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury. The maple flavour wheel was developed to express the taste of the syrup in all its nuances and describe the extensive spectrum of flavours of maple products made in North America.

The team used sensory evaluation to identify the flavours in a wide variety of maple products. First, the research team selected a variety of syrups from Quebec. They also recruited four taste panels of maple syrup amateurs, producers, industry stakeholders and tasting experts.

By grouping the terms according to their similarity, the researchers finally established 91 words (or attributes) illustrated by actual products, such as "brown sugar, sawdust, banana, hay," which they grouped into 13 flavour families and 39 subfamilies.

Thanks to the maple syrup flavour wheel, maple syrup industry stakeholders can use a common language to describe both the quality and variety of flavours of maple products. The entire industry now has a tool to present maple products to Canadian and foreign consumers.

Flavour wheel for maple products

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A research team made up of sensory evaluation specialists from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) and maple product scientists from Centre ACER (in French only) developed a glossary for use in describing the flavours of maple products. This Maple Flavour Wheel provides a scientific basis for accurate, reliable descriptions of the taste of maple syrup. The Flavour Wheel was only one of the flavour research project's goals. The study's overall goal was to develop the tools needed to explore the range of maple product flavours and reveal the secrets behind their complexity.

Describing the flavours of maple products

There is a science to tasting. Specially trained practitioners known as sensory evaluators take great pains to characterize the taste and smell sensations that foods produce, and share their discovery with others. One of the most difficult parts of taste evaluation is finding the right words to describe your perceptions. Learning the terminology of tasting is a little like learning a foreign language. To help, specialists in sensory evaluation and of maple products have come up with a flavour wheel that groups terms used to describe maple syrup flavours. The wheel was developed from a list of some 250 reference characteristics provided by several tasting panels. It is like a dictionary, providing a common language so all stakeholders can work to improve the quality of maple products.

Could you be a good taster?

An accomplished taster continually explores a vast repertoire of foods, from artichokes to zucchini. Moreover, the food experiences are filed away in the taster’s memory banks, readily recalled to help name each new taste sensation. When tasting foods with a view to describing the sensory experience, the basic rules are: be in good health, avoid smoking, coffee, chocolate and any foods with a strong or persistent taste prior to a tasting, and avoid perfumes, scented lotions and creams. Experts have learned that these conditions will affect the taste perceived. Tasting should be an enjoyable experience for the taster and should be done in a well-ventilated room, where there are no extraneous odours or noises.

Tasting maple syrup

Although professional tasters require extensive training, you can sharpen your tasting skills by following these steps:

  1. Smell the syrup by taking three quick sniffs. Make a mental note of your impressions
  2. Take a small sip of the syrup and swirl it around in your mouth. It is a good idea to spit it out if you can. Take about a minute to concentrate on the full range of flavours.
  3. Try to associate the flavour with your own experience (for example, the aroma from a bag of marshmallows).
  4. If possible, share your reaction with others, as this often helps trigger memory associations. Once you have identified what you think characterizes the taste, memorize the sensation and the name for it (for example, vanilla).
  5. Where possible, assess the degree of intensity (for example, mild, medium or strong).

Flavour wheel for maple products - diagram

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Terms used in the Flavour Wheel for Maple Products:

Vanilla:

  • Marshmallow
  • Vanilla pod

Milky:

  • Fresh
    • Butter, Cream, Milk
  • Heated
    • Butter, Milk

Empyreumatic:

  • Light
    • Golden sugar
    • Chicory, Toast
  • Medium
    • Cooked sugar-caramelized
    • Burnt wood, Ground brown coffee
    • Brown coffee bean, Chocolate
  • Strong
    • Burnt sugar
    • Ground black coffee
    • Black coffee bean
    • Smoked

Floral:

  • Flowers
  • Honey

Fruity:

  • Nuts
    • Bitter almond, Hazelnut, Nuts
  • Exotic fruits
    • Banana, Kiwi, Mango, Coconut
  • Fruits with pits or seeds
    • Peach, Apple
    • Baked apple
  • Citrus fruits
    • Orange, Orange peel

Spicy:

  • Cloves
  • Cinnamon
  • Anise
    • Black liquorice

Foreign deterioration:

  • Sulphured
    • Burnt sulphur
  • Rancidity
    • Rancid grease
  • Confined humidity
    • Soiled mop
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Fermentation
    • Vinegar, Yeast

Foreign environment:

  • Solvents
  • Soap and detergents
  • Plastics and wrapping
  • Petroleum and derivatives
  • Mineral
    • Water
  • Enclosed (dry)
    • Dust
  • Cardboard
  • Metal
  • Drugs and drugstore

Plant herbaceous:

  • Fresh herbs
    • Stem, Grassy
    • Shoot, Bud
  • Dry herbs
    • Crushed leaves
    • Nutshells
    • Dry herbs, Hay
  • Fermented herbs
    • Silage

Plants, humus, forest, cereals:

  • Humus, Forest
    • Mushroom, Mould
    • Potato
  • Cereals
    • Malt, Oat, Wheat, Rye

Plant ligneous:

  • Ligneous
    • Firewood, Wet wood
    • Sawdust
    • Softwood (pine, fir, larch, juniper, cedar, etc.)

Maple:

  • Maple
  • Roasted dandelion root

Confectionery:

  • Light
    • White sugar
  • Medium
    • Corn syrup
    • Light brown sugar
  • Strong
    • Dark brown sugar
    • Molasses
    • Sponge toffee

For more information, contact: Nancy Graveline (nancy.graveline@canada.ca)

Working with Canada's maple syrup industry

Researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have been conducting maple syrup research with Centre ACER (in French only) for several years through the Matching Investment Initiative (MII). Under this program, the maple syrup industry can pool its expertise with that of AAFC researchers through Centre ACER. The research team is able to perform innovative research based on industry requirements. Centre ACER then communicates the research findings to the maple syrup industry as part of its technology transfer mandate.

It is in this context that AAFC and Centre ACER researchers decided to conduct scientific studies to investigate this issue in 1998. The making of the Flavour Wheel initiated a lengthy collaboration focused on developing tools to enable researchers and ultimately the maple syrup industry to accurately assess the quality of maple syrup. The benefits of this research are already being felt within the industry through a process that seeks to enhance maple syrup products. Under the aegis of Centre ACER and the International Maple Syrup Institute (IMSI), the North American maple syrup industry recently undertook to revise its maple syrup classification and quality standards by introducing a flavour description. Through the researchers' tireless work, it is likely that within the next few years, the maple syrup industry will benefit from quick, practical and automated tools to characterize the flavour and quality of maple syrup.

For more information, contact: Jacinthe Fortin (jacinthe.fortin@agr.gc.ca)

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