Sap is that sticky substance you sometimes see oozing out of tree trunks. But is tree sap edible?
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And maple syrup is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sap products. Here's everything you need to know about edible tree sap, including what it is and the potential health benefits and risks of eating it.
What Is Tree Sap?
Think of sap as the blood of a tree. According to Texas A&M University, there are two types of sap: phloem and xylem.
Phloem sap is the more nutrient-rich form that flows from the leaves and transports sugars and hormones to the parts of the plant that need it most, like the stem and the roots. Xylem is mostly water with some mineral elements and has fewer nutrients. It flows from the roots to the stems and leaves of plants.
The Difference Between Sap, Syrup and Resin
Tree sap and resin are sometimes confused for being the same thing. Here is the difference between sap, syrup and resin:
- Sap: The typically clear, thin and watery substance that's full of nutrients, minerals and sugars; used to make syrup and other edible products as well as non-food commercial products
- Resin: The sticky, gummy substance produced in the resin cells in certain plants and coniferous trees, according to the United States Department of Agriculture
- Syrup: The product made by extracting sap from trees and boiling it into a concentrated form (like maple and birch syrup), per the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment
Is Tree Sap Edible?
Hundreds of tree species produce tree sap, many of which are considered safe to eat.
"Sap from the sugar maple tree is the best known edible type and the most commonly tapped," says Lindsey Hyland, gardening expert and founder of Urban Organic Yield. "Other edible tree sap includes that from birch trees, pine trees and fruit trees such as apples."
Here are some other trees that are commonly tapped for their edible sap, according to Ronnie Collins, botanist and founder of the blog Electro Garden Tools:
- White and black walnut
Keep in mind that not all sap will be sweet and tasty. Even if the tree sap is edible, the sap of many trees is bland, bitter or almost tasteless, according to American Forests Magazine. And if you're not able to identify the type of tree, your safest bet is to skip eating the sap altogether.
Can You Eat or Drink Raw Tree Sap?
While you can technically eat raw sap from one of the above listed trees, you probably shouldn't, and it's not a common practice. "Really no one does this," says Hank Shaw, foraging and wild foods expert.
Instead, he recommends boiling sap down by at least half to concentrate it into syrup. Boiling not only helps intensify the flavor but also eliminates potentially harmful bacteria.
Commercial Tree Sap
Most people are likely to encounter edible tree sap in the form of maple syrup (although make sure to pick pure maple syrup, as processed syrups may not contain much of the real sap).
Per the University of Rhode Island, sap is also used in a variety of other foods, including:
- Chewing gum
- Birch syrup
- Water (maple or birch)
- Maple butter
- Maple sugar
- Maple taffy
- Maple beer
- Birch beer
- Maple liqueur
- Birch sap vinegar
- Ice cream
Tree sap is also used to make several household items. According to the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment, some non-food commercial products made from tree sap include:
- Cough syrup
- Waterproofing for boats, bats and containers
Tree Sap Benefits
While tree sap can make for a tasty syrup, snack or beverage, its benefits go beyond flavor. Here are some of those health perks:
1. It Provides Minerals and Nutrients
Tree sap contains beneficial nutrients and minerals, per Texas A&M University.
In a December 2020 study in PLOS One, researchers found that sap collected from multiple birch trees has significant amounts of essential minerals like copper, manganese and zinc.
However, the researchers also noted that sap can contain dangerous levels of heavy metals — another reason why it's typically safest to skip eating raw tree sap, Shaw says.
2. It Has Anti-inflammatory Properties
Eating or drinking parts of the pine tree may help reduce inflammation. For instance, pine bark extract has anti-inflammatory properties (along with antioxidant and brain health-supporting effects), according to an April 2015 review in The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.
Tree Sap Risks
Edible tree sap that's been boiled to kill any harmful bacteria is safe to eat and drink.
Commercial waters, syrups and other products pose few risks, but be mindful of how much you're eating and drinking. For example, eating too much syrup can spike your blood sugar and insulin levels, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Research on all of the potential risks of eating or drinking tree sap is still needed, but some risks are possible, including:
1. There's Potential for an Allergic Reaction
An allergic reaction to tree sap is possible. "You should be very careful with consuming the sap of any trees if you are allergic to their pollen," Collins says.
2. You Could Become Sick
If you aren't sure of a tree's species, it's best to leave the sap alone. Untreated sap may also contain harmful substances like metals, per the PLOS One study.
How to Remove Tree Sap From Clothes and More
Tree sap can be sticky — once it finds its way to clothing or other surfaces like your hair, skin or car, it may feel like you'll never get it out. In order to remove sap from clothing and carpet, the American Cleaning Institute recommends:
- Saturating the stain with rubbing alcohol to help the sap dissolve
- Laundering machine-washable items in warm water
- Dry cleaning delicate fabrics like wool and leather
- Spot cleaning rugs and carpets with rubbing alcohol
Cooking oil can help remove sap from you (or your pet's) hair and hands, while rubbing alcohol or alcohol-based hand sanitizer can remove it from your car and most surfaces.
- Texas A&M University: "What is sap?"
- American Cleaning Institute: "Ask ACI: Tree Sap Cleaning"
- American Forests Magazine: "Edible Trees: Foraging for Food from Forests"
- PLOS One: "The effect of tree age, daily sap volume and date of sap collection on the content of minerals and heavy metals in silver birch (Betula pendula Roth) tree sap"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Maple Syrup Better for You Than Sugar?"
- USDA: "Resins"
- University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment: "Intro to Maple Syrup"
- The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeautics: "Pine bark extracts": nutraceutical, pharmacological, and toxicological evaluation
- Journal of Food Biochemistry: "Anti-inflammatory properties of fermented pine (Pinus morrisonicola Hay.) needle on lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation in RAW 264.7 macrophage cells"
- Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment: "Tree Basics"
- University of Rhode Island: "Maple 101"