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August 01, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

NRC researchers are helping a Canadian company introduce the world’s first maple syrup designed specifically for people who have diabetes or are on a carbohydrate-restricted diet. 

“Lots of people love maple syrup, but not everyone should consume it,” says Dr. Wei Zou of the NRC Institute for Biological Sciences (IBS) in Ottawa. “More than two million Canadians are diabetic or pre-diabetic, which means their blood sugar levels are usually higher than normal.” 

In collaboration with the Winchester, Ontario-based company Natunola Health Sciences, Dr. Zou’s team has developed a low-glycemic index (GI) maple syrup that contains the same proportion of sugar as regular maple syrup, but in a different form — called isomaltulose.

What is GI?

The glycemic index measures the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI. Carbohydrates that break down slower, releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream, have a low GI. A GI above 69 is considered high, while a GI below 56 is considered low. A Canadian study found that the average GI of Quebec maple syrup is 78

Sucrose is the most common sugar found in maple syrup, accounting for about 90 percent of its total sugar content. A lower-GI sugar, isomaltulose shares the same chemical formula as sucrose but has a different structure. Isomaltulose is an ideal candidate for replacing sucrose because it’s digested slowly by enzymes in our intestines. “Unlike sucrose, it does not cause a spike in blood sugar levels when it’s metabolized,” says Dr. Zou. This leads to a more balanced and prolonged energy supply for the body.

In collaboration with Natunola Health Sciences, Dr. Wei Zou and his colleagues have developed a low-glycemic index maple syrup with the same proportion of sugar as regular syrup.

In collaboration with Natunola Health Sciences, Dr. Wei Zou and his colleagues have developed a low-glycemic index maple syrup with the same proportion of sugar as regular syrup.

A low-GI alternative 

Natunola initially approached NRC with the idea of developing a low-GI alternative in 2007. “The company didn’t want a process that would convert all of the sugars into isomaltulose because it wanted to ensure the flavour was as close as possible to regular maple syrup,” says Dr. Zou. “Sucrose isn’t solely responsible for maple syrup’s flavour. There are other sugars as well as phenolic compounds which, some researchers claim, have antioxidant properties.” 

With funding from the NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program, it took the team two years to develop a successful method, using maple sap as the starting material. “We needed to make sure our conversion process wouldn’t put anything into the sap that wasn’t there before, with the exception of isomaltulose,” says Dr. Zou. Working with the University of Guelph’s Kemptville College, Natunola started producing low-GI maple syrup products on a pilot scale in 2010. 

Did you know?

Canada produces 85 percent of the world’s maple syrup. In 2005, our maple syrup industry exported 32,500 tonnes of the sticky substance — worth $165 million — of which 72 percent went to the U.S.

Before low-GI syrup can reach the market, it must clear some regulatory hurdles. “We need to make sure that the low-GI version is absolutely safe to consume,” says Dr. Zou. “We also want to verify that it has a much lower glycemic index than regular maple syrup.” (The glycemic index of isomaltulose is 32). 

From a consumer perspective, the most important issue is taste, adds Stacey Nunes, the business development officer at IBS. “When we taste our syrup, we barely notice any difference from regular syrup, so I think the market will embrace it because it’s a healthier product.”

Related information

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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