A Canadian-led study about our country's most beloved export -- maple syrup -- has shown that the sweet stuff that makes pancakes so good might also help antibiotics work better.

The research from a McGill University team was presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Lead researcher Nathalie Tufenkji, who specializes in chemical engineering, says her team's study began with the observation that aboriginal people in Canada have long used maple syrup to fight infections.

To determine whether the syrup might actually have antimicrobial properties, they purchased cans of syrup from a market in Montreal and then processed it to remove the syrup's sugar and water. They then isolated the syrup's phenolic compounds, which contribute to the syrup's golden hue.

Working with postdoctoral fellow Vimal Maisuria, and in collaboration with Eric Deziel at INRS-Institut Armand Frappier in Laval, Tufenkji then exposed several disease-causing bacteria to the extract.

But to their dismay, they didn't see much in the way of bacteria-killing.

"At first we were a little disappointed," Tufenkji told CTV News. "But then we thought, let's take a look and see if these phenolic compounds might have some synergy with antibiotics."

Curious about whether the syrup extract could enhance the potency of two commonly used antibiotics, ciprofloxacin and carbenicillin, they placed strains of several kinds of bacteria in petri dishes along with the syrup compounds and then added in antibiotics.

"What we found is that when we added the antibiotics with maple syrup-extracted phenolic compounds, we actually needed a lot less antibiotic to kill the bacteria. We could reduce the dose of antibiotic by up to 90 per cent," she said..

The approach worked on a variety of bacteria, including E. coli, which can cause potentially fatal intestinal infections; Proteus mirabilis, which is responsible for some urinary tract infections; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause hospital-acquired infections.

The team then wondered whether their findings could work beyond petri dishes, so they tested the syrup extract in live fruit flies and moth larvae.

The researchers dosed fruit fly food with bacteria that would normally cause them to die off in a short period of time. But when they added antibiotics and the phenolic extracts to the food, the flies lived for days longer than expected.

The team observed a similar outcome with the moth larvae, with the larvae given the antibiotics and syrup extracts living longer than expected. What's more, the maple extracts had no harmful effects on the flies and moths.

"This tells us this treatment approach is very promising in terms of reducing the usage of antibiotics in fighting infections," Tufenkji said, adding the next step is to test the compounds in infected mice.

The researchers believe the polyphenolic extract works to boost the effect of antibiotics because it changes bacterial cells, making their walls more permeable, thus helping the antibiotics gain access to the interior of the cells.

It may also be that the extract disables the bacterial "pump" that normally removes antibiotics from these cells.

Tufenkji says she suspects there are lots of natural antimicrobials waiting to be discovered. But she is pleased her team found one in maple syrup, though cautions there is still a lot of work to do to confirm her team's findings.

"We're excited we have a made-in-Canada solution to the overuse of antibiotics," she said.

With a report from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip