Our recipes and stories, delivered.

In The Family
What Is Pancake Syrup Made Of?

How a sweetener with zero maple flavoring winds up tasting like maple syrup.

One crisp morning in the fall of 2005, dozens of New Yorkers dialed city services with a curious concern: The air smelled really good. Too good, like pancakes and maple syrup. Some people rejoiced, while others called the cops. The phenomenon hit a few more days that year, and again through 2009, when the origin of the mystery odor was finally solved: a perfume factory in New Jersey that regularly processed fenugreek, a South Asian spice used in fragrances and chemical flavorings—including pancake syrup. Sniff them blind and fenugreek seeds do indeed release a telltale whiff of Aunt Jemima, a condiment made of corn syrup, caramel coloring, and thickeners like sodium hexametaphosphate.

That’s a far cry from real maple syrup, which is made from freshly tapped maple sap boiled down to 1/40th of its original volume into a concentrated solution with a thinner body than pancake syrup but richer flavor. Americans certainly taste the difference, though the country’s preferred pancake topper may surprise you. In 2015, The Washington Post ran a survey asking Americans which of the two syrups they prefer. “Fake” pancake syrup won by a landslide.

Also read: The Aebleskiver of Solvang

Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.