It’s easy to assume maple syrup is naturally vegan, but the truth is not so simple.

This is because the sap from maple trees isn’t the only ingredient used to make maple syrup. Sugar houses also add defoamers and many use filtering agents. Most syrup producers use the filtration agent diatomaceous earth, which is a crushed sedimentary rock often used in organic farming. It is vegan.

But defoamers take many different forms. Defoamers are fats added in small amounts to keep the viscous liquid from bubbling and foaming and slowing the evaporation process. Dairy cream, butter and pork fat can be used to defoam evaporating maple, though experts say that Maine’s major maple producers avoid animal products.

“Very few producers use animal-based products,” said Scott Dunn, president of the Maine Maple Syrup Producers Association and owner of Dunn Family Maple in Buxton. “However, there are a few old-timers that still do, but they are generally smaller in size.”

When I asked Dunn about potential defoamers, he said, some producers “used to take a hook and put a piece of bacon fat in (the evaporator). Lard. Vegetable oils. I’ve heard of people using coffee creamer. You basically need some kind of fat.”

The defoamer of choice for many of today’s maple producers is a synthetic oil. Synthetic defoamers don’t reveal their ingredients, so we don’t know if they contain animal products. Dunn uses a synthetic defoamer at his sugar house, and I asked if he considers his syrup vegan.

“I would not call mine vegan because I can’t guarantee that with the defoamer,” Dunn told me. “They haven’t disclosed the recipe.”

Synthetic defoamer, as its name implies, is made from a mix of synthetic oils, generally synthesized in a laboratory from petroleum. Petroleum is technically vegan yet not warmly embraced by the vegan community. (Artificial colors and flavors are commonly derived from petroleum, and vegans have debated about the status of Vaseline jelly.) In addition, synthetic oils could have added animal products. We just don’t know. Many synthetic defoamers advertise that they’re kosher, yet that doesn’t tell us if the defoamer contains animal-based ingredients.

Abbie Sprague and Dalton Meagher serve Maine-iac Maple Farm syrup over vegan ice cream on a pre-COVID Maine Maple Sunday at the sugar house in Richmond, which uses vegetable oil as a defoamer. Photo by Avery Yale Kamila

If you want a vegan maple syrup and you don’t know what a particular producer uses, look for the MOFGA organic label. Katy Green, the spokesperson for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, told me MOFGA-certified producers use organic vegetable oil.

“I connected with my colleagues in certification, and they have confirmed that there are no MOFGA-certified organic maple producers using butter or lard as a defoaming agent,” Green said.

Sap Hound Maple Company in Brownfield is certified organic by MOFGA and calls its syrup vegan on its website. Sap Hound uses organic vegetable oils, such as canola and safflower, as a defoamer.

“It helps keep foaming to a minimum,” said Corrie St. Saviour, who owns the business with her husband, Nate. St. Saviour told me customers have asked about whether the syrup is vegan, which is why Sap Hound includes that information on its website.

Just as some small producers use butter, some small sugar houses — while not certified organic — do use vegetable oil as a defoamer. My uncle operates one such sugar house in Richmond, Maine-iac Maple Farm. It was there, while soaking in the delicious, spa-like vapors escaping from the wood-fired evaporator, that I learned about defoamers.

Back in Brownfield, Sap Hound has been in business for six years, and the St. Saviours are working around the clock operating sugar houses on two separate properties.

“There’s not a lot of sleeping that happens in March and April,” St. Saviour told me. “There’s a lot of running around in the woods. Days and nights boiling.”

But the end result of all that work is sweet, sweet vegan maple syrup from Maine.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at
[email protected]
Twitter: @AveryYaleKamila


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