Not just a tasty snack – maple syrup can boost the power of antibiotics

Enjoy maple syrup with your pancakes? An ongoing study suggests that the popular kitchen companion contains extracts which could boost the power of antibiotics, significantly reducing the amount of drug needed to kill infectious bacteria.

On the 2nd April, Dr. Nathalie Tufenkji presented the latest information on the study at the ‘253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society’ in San Francisco.

Back in 2015, Dr. Tufenkji and her research team at McGill University in Québec, Canada, began to investigate the antimicrobial effect of maple syrup after seeing how aboriginal people have traditionally used the substance to fight infection.

Phenolic compounds in maple syrup, which give it its golden colour, have been previously linked with various beneficial attributes, such as antioxidant and anti-cancer properties.

Dr. Tufenkji’s team started by separating the phenolic compounds from the sugar and water in the syrup, and then tested the antimicrobial effect of the phenolic extract on infectious bacteria including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli and Proteus mirabilis. However, it didn’t look as though the extract had any significant ability to kill the bacteria.

Following on from this, the research team combined the extract with two different antibiotics, ciprofloxacin and carbenicillin.

Interestingly, the phenolic extract showed a synergistic effect with both of these antibiotics – partnering them up gave a kick to the drug’s ability to kill the bacteria. In fact, this effect was so great that it allowed the research team to achieve the same result when using around 90% less of the antibiotic than normal.

Why is this important? There’s two main reasons – firstly, a lower concentration of antibiotic means less risk of damaging your own healthy tissues while dealing with the infectious bacteria. Secondly, cutting down on the quantity of the drug means that you’re also lowering the chance of the bacteria developing a resistance against it and becoming a drug-resistant strain.

Dr. Tufenkji began her work on maple syrup extract after noticing its use by aboriginal people to treat infections. Image credit: Eva Blue on

In work that’s yet to be published, the team moved on to test how the maple syrup extract held up when used in a live organism (in vivo) in fruit flies and moth larvae. To do this, they added bacteria to the insect’s food along with antibiotic, and then either added the extract to the food or withheld it. For both the fruit flies and the moth larvae, they found that the group who’d also been treated with the maple extract were able to survive for days longer that those who hadn’t received the treatment.

Dr. Tufenkji’s group were also able to identify two potential mechanisms to explain why this extract / antibiotic partnership is so successful. The phenolic extract appears to increase the permeability of the bacterial membranes, which could make it easier for the drug to get inside the bacteria. The extract could also help the drug by switching off pumps inside the bacteria, which can normally be used by the microbes to remove any antibiotic which has managed to gain entry.

While these phenolic extracts would certainly need a lot more testing before they could stand a chance of being used medicinally, Dr. Tufenkji seems hopeful that their natural origin could set them apart from other treatment.

“There are other products out there that boost antibiotic strength,” she said. “But this may be the only one that comes from nature.”

The team’s next step is to see whether the synergistic relationship between antibiotic and phenolic extracts is maintained when applied to mice.

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