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How maple syrup producers tap banned performance enhancers to milk more money from the trees

More than two decades after Canada banned the use of paraformaldehyde to enhance maple syrup production, the occasional producer is still dragged before tribunals to face sanction for use of the noxious chemical.


Twenty-three years have passed since the chemical additive was banned, and still authorities find rare cheats.

No, this is not a story about doping by a famous athlete, but a tale of the juicing of another national icon: the beloved maple tree. More than two decades after Canada banned the use of paraformaldehyde to enhance maple syrup production, the occasional producer is still dragged before tribunals to face sanction for use of the noxious chemical.

The annual list of alleged culprits has dwindled to a die-hard few: In 2013, the federation of maple syrup producers accused three people, down from nine in 2011, and far down from 14 years ago when authorities believed something like 40 per cent of the province's producers, then numbering around 10,000, were still using the chemical, which was used almost universally before a 1991 ban.

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The proud players of the romanticized, $350-million maple industry, which is dominated by Quebec, have always loved to brag that pure maple sap is the only ingredient in maple syrup. But for decades before 1991, most used a paraformaldehyde pill to boost production during the annual spring run.

In athletic doping, it's often referred to as short-term gain for long-term pain, and the cheats of the maple sugar industry take a similar path. Paraformaldehyde, a chemical derivative of the better-known formaldehyde, was inserted into tap holes in trees to keep them from healing over too quickly. The longer the hole stays open, the more sap runs, meaning more profit for unscrupulous producers.

The problem is long-term damage can be done to trees when an opening is left too long in the warm spring and infection and infestation set in. There are also concerns about human health given formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, although the practice leaves behind only hard-to-detect trace levels.

"Some people want to profit for a few years from short-term advantages," said Paul Rouillard, an executive with the maple syrup producers federation, which acts as an industry marketing board and quality enforcement watchdog. "But there are really medium and long-term effects for this short-term gain."

As in athletics, cheats often find new ways around the control system. In 1998, seven years after the ban, a maple syrup company was found to have obtained the paraformaldehyde in bulk and was breaking it down into a usable tablet size on its own. In the past five years, cheaters have been found using a spray version of the chemical, which is harder to detect.

Quebec prides itself as the guardian of maple syrup quality. Vermont, a growing competitor, accused the Canadian province of lax enforcement in 2001 and threatened an embargo. Many in Quebec saw the threat as protectionist posturing, but enforcement was beefed up anyway. The issue faded from discussion over the past dozen years as use of the product became rare.

Mr. Rouillard believes the chemical is still used in other jurisdictions, which lack the teams of inspectors Quebec routinely sends into the bush for random testing.

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"We're the only place that puts this kind of energy into following up on the ban," Mr. Rouillard said. "We still find a handful because we are looking, unlike other places." Mr. Rouillard declined to name the enforcement laggards.

But in sugar bushes across Quebec, producers say formaldehyde users have nearly gone extinct. "Nobody uses that any more; you never hear about it," said Francine Marquis, the co-owner of Toulidou, a small 8,000-tap organic maple forest near the Quebec-New Brunswick border. "And not just the ones certified organic, like us. It just isn't done by anyone."

When maple trees are tapped, the holes normally heal and stop flowing after about a month. Before the Canadian Food Inspection Agency banned the chemical, most producers inserted formaldehyde pellets to keep the hole from sealing up and extend the flow.

When the ban was put in place, there were also concerns about the long-term effect on health of the chemical, which is toxic and carcinogenic in high doses. There appears to be little literature on the effect of consuming trace amounts of the chemical with the occasional pancake breakfast. The syrup of offending producers is allowed into the food system, albeit downgraded from the pricey levels of table syrup to the cheap industrial grade.

One problem with enforcement is that formaldehyde occurs naturally in maple sap. The maple producers association is facing a lawsuit from a producer named Roger Caron, who was cleared of charges four years ago. Quebec's agricultural tribunal concluded the level of the chemical found in Mr. Caron's trees may have occurred naturally. Plus, his inspection was beset by problems, including when an inspector got lost in the woods and tested trees that did not belong to him.

The tribunal ruled there was plenty of evidence that Mr. Caron, who has 59,000 taps in eastern Quebec, was "very concerned about the quality of his production" and was unlikely, on the balance of probabilities, to have used the chemical.

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Mr. Caron said the prosecution did immeasurable damage to his reputation. He declined to elaborate further, citing his upcoming court case.

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