About an hour west of Boston, John Gomersall found his piece of country paradise in the town of Mendon. Soon after he and his wife settled into their 1800s farmhouse at Quissett Hill Farm, he had an enterprising idea.
“I was eyeing the sugar maples out front and I was like, wow, I want to try tapping them this year,” recalled Gomersall. He tapped four trees, hung buckets to collect the sap and, when they filled, labored over a campfire. Fourteen hours later, he had produced his first batch of maple syrup.
“I wound up with a teaspoon,” he said with a laugh.
That modest beginning has morphed into a sprawling maple syrup operation. Gomersall produced 250 gallons of syrup this past winter and spring. Inside his bright red sugar house, he’s invested heavily in gleaming equipment that’s allowed him to keep up with a growing demand from not only customers at farmer’s markets, but, increasingly, local restaurants and stores.
“A lot of people these days, they’re looking for pure, organic products,” said Gomersall, “nothing added to it.”
That promise of 100 percent pure is a key selling point. But producers like Gomersall say it’s under threat. The Food and Drug Administration is rolling out new nutrition labels that will require the words “added sugar.”
“I was kind of stunned,” said Gomersall. “The whole idea behind maple syrup was pure 100 percent maple syrup, nothing added.”
He said customers will be confused and many will opt to leave maple syrup on the store shelf.
But advocates say, amid a worsening obesity epidemic, the words “added sugar” will help consumers keep track of how much sugar they’re consuming. It will be required on foods like yogurt, cereal and cookies that have sugar added to them and in items that are only sugar — such as table sugar, honey and maple syrup.
“There’s nothing special about the sugars in maple sugar or honey,” said Bonnie Liebman, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “They’re not different than table sugar or high fructose corn syrup or any other sweeteners that are usually added to food. That’s why they’re called added sugars.”
She said there’s room on the label for maple syrup producers to make their case.
“They can simply put on the front or back of the label in large letters, '100% pure' or 'no ingredients other than maple sugar' or 'contains no added sweeteners,'” said Leibman.
It’s a suggestion the maple syrup industry argues would only create more confusion for consumers.
“Consumer understanding of and appreciation for pure maple products depends upon consistency,” Michael Girard, executive director of the North American Maple Syrup council wrote in a letter to the FDA. “Any implication on the nutrition label that suggests that the product contains anything other than pure maple syrup would mislead consumers and have a potentially devastating impact on our industry.”
It's a sentiment echoed by more than 3,000 maple syrup producers during an open comment period about the food labels. The FDA is now considering revising the ‘added sugar’ language, indicating in a web post: “The agency looks forward to working with stakeholders to devise a sensible solution.”
That solution could determine the future of John Gomerall’s maple syrup business.
“It’s kind of scary,” he said. “You want to put your foot on the brake and see where the dust settles, but with our operation we can’t afford to do that because we have a lot of investments in place.”
Whether or not they pay off, he said, may depend on the fine print on the back of his syrup bottles.