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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Pass the pancakes

USDA gives URI $500,000 to promote maple industry
maple syrup pancakes GIF by Adventures Once HadA new, federally funded initiative at the University of Rhode Island will promote the maple industry throughout the Northeast, stressing the sustainability and market value of this local crop and the potential health benefits of maple food products.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Acer Access and Development Program has awarded nearly half a million dollars to researchers from three colleges at URI to raise public awareness of maple products and the potential benefits of the natural sweetener, increase consumption and promote the industry. 

The initiative, called the Collaborative to Communicate Maple Benefits, will target all of New England as well as New York and New Jersey.


Principal investigators on the three-year, $499,427 grant are Navindra Seeram, professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences in the College of Pharmacy; Christy Ashley, associate professor of marketing in the College of Business; and Yinjiao Ye, professor of communication studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media in the College of Arts & Sciences.

This is the third USDA grant awarded to URI for maple research.

“URI is in the center of the maple producing region. Maple trees grow only in North America, so our maple syrup and sap products cannot be outsourced,” said Seeram, arguably the world’s leading expert on maple research. 

“While New Englanders appreciate maple trees’ beauty and may enjoy a drizzle of syrup on their pancakes, many are unaware of maple’s potential health, environmental and economic value.”

This project aims to change that.

Because maple food products have a unique compositional chemistry containing minerals, vitamins, amino acids and more than 67 bioactive natural plant compounds with potential health benefits — as identified in a decade of research in Seeram’s URI lab — the team expects to gain early momentum among health-conscious consumers. 

His findings already have shown that maple compounds may help stabilize blood glucose levels, fight inflammation and help fight wrinkles.

But the initiative goes beyond promoting health outcomes, Seeram said. It fulfills URI’s mission as a Land Grant University through learning, research and service as well as harkening back to the University’s agricultural roots. 

The project also highlights the University’s strength in interdisciplinary research. Indeed, the team members said that bringing together experts from diverse disciplines gave URI an edge when competing for the federal funding.

For example, Ye’s expertise lies in health outcomes communication, and she is responsible for building a mobile-friendly web portal and directing social media outreach. “It’s going to be an exciting journey for me to work with marketing and pharmacy professors, and I believe it will be very fruitful. It is a perfect combination of our specialties,” she said.

Ashley will coordinate marketing promotions and indicators of success, establishing baseline measures of sales and consumer attitudes around maple products and making promotional material available online. 

By tracking metrics, analyzing trends and conducting consumer surveys, the team can tweak tactics and strategy as needed. And students in Ashley’s social media marketing class will be given a budget and tasked with creating a promotional campaign for maple products.

Activities will involve undergraduate and graduate students — in and out of the classroom — and members of the community. 

Master gardeners with URI’s Cooperative Extension will educate consumers at farmers’ markets and similar events, alongside student ambassadors, and a culinary class at Johnson & Wales University in Providence will use maple as a “hero” ingredient. 

As members of a Maple Promotion League, the ambassadors will engage maple producers, investors, maple hobbyists, social media influencers and early adopters (proponents of sustainable agriculture and healthy eating, for example).

“We will generate marketing activities and determine what works,” Ashley said. “We can then turn over our findings to maple industry stakeholders.”

The International Maple Syrup Institute, North America Maple Syrup Council and the Federation of Maple Syrup Producers of Quebec — major industry stakeholders — already have promised their support and involvement. 

In fact, the Federation began funding Seeram’s research into maple syrup’s potentially beneficial compounds in 2009, and the fruitful partnership continues today with funding of ongoing research in his lab. The Federation’s early commitment to Seeram’s work enabled him to make significant findings, which then led to grants from additional sources, he said.

Enhancing the economic clout of the maple industry is another objective. The United States is the world’s largest consumer of sweeteners, including corn sweeteners and other syrups. True maple syrup — NOT pancake syrup — accounts for only one percent of this market, leaving much room for growth.

With 56 million people living in the project’s coverage area, the researchers estimate that they can triple the number of maple users over three years, boosting sales from $9.7 million to $29.4 million. 

They also hope to encourage increased maple sales and demand, and entice investors to the industry.
With so many stakeholders and partners, the team is confident that the project’s work will be sustained beyond the life of the grant. They envision the web portal as a clearinghouse of cutting-edge research findings, consumer-friendly information, marketing tools and even recipes.

“We are creating something that will be long lasting, beyond the three-year grant,” Ye said.