"The Mystery of the Maple Syrup Mist"

That's the title Mayor Bloomberg gave to the investigation into the recurring maple syrup smells that have been reported sporadically in New York City over the past few years. The City closed its investigation with the conclusion that the smell is caused by an ester escaping from the processing of fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) seed by a New Jersey plant owned by Frutarom. The ester occurred in concentrations of only one part per billion or less, making identification difficult.

Fenugreek seeds. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Credit: Humbads

Trigonella foenum-graecum, Fenugreek, is in the Fabaceae, the Pea or Legume Family.
Botanical illustration: Fenugreek

Fenugreek seeds are a rich source of the polysaccharide galactomannan. They are also a source of saponins such as diosgenin, yamogenin, gitogenin, tigogenin, and neotigogens. Other bioactive constituents of fenugreek include mucilage, volatile oils, and alkaloids such as choline and trigonelline.

Fenugreek is frequently used in the production of flavoring for artificial maple syrups. The taste of toasted fenugreek, like cumin, is additionally based on substituted pyrazines. By itself, fenugreek has a somewhat bitter taste.
- Fenugreek, Wikipedia


Press conference

New York City Department of Environmental Protection
New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

N.J. Fenugreek Seeds, Source of Mysterious Syrup Odor, Michael Barbaro, New York Times, 2009.02.05
Maple Mystery Solved (It's New Jersey's Fault), Elizabeth Benjamin, New York Daily News, 2009.02.05


new york city garden said...

I remember the first time I smelled this odor, around 10:30 pm near Columbus Circle. I thought it anomolous until I got out of the subway 45 minutes later at Ft. Hamilton Pkwy and smelled it again. The next day, everyone thought I was nuts.

So much for nuts.

JGH said...

We used to smell this in the Theatre district when I live there years ago. We all noticed it and it was a big mystery. I wonder if it is the same weird smell that they're talking about!

George Africa said...

Hello in New York;

I followed this maple syrup conspiracy for some time wondering what the eventual outcome would be. For those unfamiliar with the smell of real maple syrup, come to Vermont during the month of April and you'll probably find a Vermont sugar house where maple sap is boiled to make maple syrup. It takes 35-40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. Price was around $55/gallon this year at the gallon rate and it translated to over $100 a gallon if you bought small containers, 2 ounce, half pint, pint, etc. Just like milk from a dairy or a live Christmas Tree in December, if you actually knew what went into the production, you'd never question the price.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Gardens
Vermont Flower Farm (under revision)

Xris (Flatbush Gardener) said...

nycg: maple, not nuts. That would be a different ester. :-)

jgh: Probably the same phenomenon. This has been going on for several years.

ga: I love real maple syrup. A few years ago I had the opportunity to visit a sugarhouse while vacationing in Vermont. I now understand the differences between Fancy, A, B, etc. It was summer, so not in operation, but it was impressive nonetheless. Also impressive was the number of trees and the area of land needed to produce those gallons of sap.