Oh hooray—finally your tower of fluffy pancakes has arrived at your brunch table. After slathering them with about a dozen foil-wrapped butter pats, you instinctively reach for the sticky pitcher of syrup your server dropped off alongside them and… wait. That amber-colored substance you’re about to pour all over your flapjack stack—what is it, exactly? Syrup, obviously, but that can mean an awful lot of different things, even if the syrup is a simple Grade A maple. Oh, and don’t go assuming that there’s any maple sap in there, even if you think it tastes like there is. Syrup is sticky business, but this primer on syrup grades should clear it up a little.

Pancake Syrup

It’s technically syrup, in that it’s a sweet, thick liquid made of sugar and water, but that doesn’t mean there’s any maple in it. The ingredient list for one of the leading brand’s original formula reads: “High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Water, Salt, Cellulose Gum, Molasses, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative) Sodium Hexametaphosphate, Citric Acid, Caramel Color, Natural and Artificial Flavors.” The sugar-free version of that brand gets its sweetness from sorbitol, Aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet), Acesulfame K, and sucralose—which is sold under the brand name Splenda. They’re tasty as heck and some do contain a small percentage of maple, but if you’re looking for simply natural sap, you may be barking up the wrong tree. Look (or ask) for syrup with “pure maple syrup” as the only listed ingredient.

Fun fact: Fenugreek seeds are a commonly-used flavoring in imitation maple syrup, and a Northern New Jersey fragrance plant happened to be processing them on the day in 2005 when New Yorkers deluged the city’s 311 line to report a mysterious maple syrup smell wafting over Manhattan.

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Grade A Syrup

Pick up a bottle of Grade A syrup and—due to some pretty stringent, and recently-revised labeling laws—you can be confident that you’re pouring nothing but pure maple on your ‘cakes. Still, it gets a little tricky.

From lightest to darkest:

Grade A Golden Color, Delicate Taste Maple Syrup was formerly classified as “Fancy” and it’s made at the beginning of the processing season.

Grade A Amber Color, Rich Taste Syrup is fairly equivalent to the former Medium Amber and the lighter end of the syrup formerly known as Grade A Dark Amber.

Grade A Dark Color, Robust Taste Syrup comes about later in the season and is akin to what was previously known as Grade B, with (as you can probably infer) a darker color and deeper flavor.

Grade A Very Dark Color, Strong Flavor Syrup is produced at the tail end of the season and is more optimized for cooking and baking than straight-up pancake drizzling. Under the previous system, it was known as Grade C and sold to factories and producers to make foods like maple-flavored candy.

Grade B Syrup

With the labeling law revision, Grade B no longer exists. If you find it on your grocery store shelves while you’re searching for your Master Cleanse ingredients, it’s been sitting there, well, since Master Cleanse was a thing that people still did.