Is sugar vegan? In short: some sugar is vegan, some may not be vegan.
Finding out that sugar may not be vegan is shocking. It's sugar after all - isn't it made from just sugarcane or sugar beets? What could make it non-vegan? The answer is bone char, it is often referred to as 'natural carbon'. It's widely used by the American sugar industry as a decolorizing filter, to give sugar its white color.
What is bone char?
Bone char is made from the bones of cattle who were slaughtered in Afghanistan, Argentina, India or Pakistan, and then sold to traders in other foreign countries, who then sell the bones back to the U.S. sugar industry.
The European Union and the USDA heavily regulate the use of bone char. Only countries that are deemed BSE-free can sell the bones of their cattle for this process. Therefore sugar in Europe is generally safe for vegans.
What sugar is vegan?
Firstly, beet and coconut sugar are never processed with bone char. Organic sugar is vegan too. Certified organic sugar by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) cannot be filtered through bone char! If the sugar you want to buy isn’t organic, check to see if it says 'unrefined' or made from beets.
What about brown and powdered sugar?
Unfortunately, bone char is common in brown sugar as well. Companies that use bone char in white sugar will also use it to make brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar and powdered sugar made by these companies also involves the use of bone char. Fructose may, but does not typically, involve a bone-char filter.
Target's Good & Gather Powdered Sugar and Organic Powdered Sugar, Florida Crystals, and Tom Thumb Organics are all vegan-friendly! Generally, I recommend looking for powdered and brown sugars that are declared USDA organic and/or vegan with a trusted label.
Vegan sugar brands
Generally, US supermarket brands of sugar (e.g., Giant, Townhouse, etc.) obtain their sugar from several different refineries, making it impossible to know whether it has been filtered with bone char or not. If you are unsure contact companies directly or buy a brand that is known for not using bone-char filters. Some known vegan brands are:
- All USDA certified organic sugars
- Sugar In The Raw
- Whole Foods 365
- Bob's Red Mill
- Florida Crystals Sugar
- Domino Sugar
- Big Tree Farms
- Simple Truth
- Trader Joe's
- Now Foods
Beware: Some brands are declared vegan on PETA Websites and guides, but still process their sugar through bone char in the United States. These are often brands that sell in Europe where sugar is never processed through bone char. So some of the information online can be misleading! When contacting these brands they like to answer a bit 'wishy washy' about this topic, but are usually processing through bone char in the states. Examples are Imperial Sugar, Dixie Crystals, and Kroger. I recommend always looking for brands that have a clear trusted vegan label, or USDA organic label!
Refined sugar and health
Added refined sugars are one of the most controversial ingredients in our daily diet. Refined sugars, meaning white and brown table sugar, have gone through a chemical process that removes impurities, by heating, clarifying, and dehydrating cane juice until crystals form. As we learned that process is not always vegan in the United States. This process also takes away beneficial nutrients!
Refined table sugar has been associated with many serious diseases, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Research shows refined sugars may cause the body to store fat, and increase blood pressure and diabetes risk. Unrefined alternatives have more nutrients and may have fewer adverse health effects. (source)
Part of the whole problem is that most people consume way too much sugar, often without even knowing it. Remember: Any sugar that is not in its whole-foods plant-based form can harm your health when consumed in excess. Learn here which sweetener may be the healthiest for you. Following I will list some refined sugar alternatives to use in your kitchen.
Raw Cane Sugar (unrefined)
This raw form of sugar, also called turbinado, is somewhat less processed than regular sugar. It still retains some of the molasses and moisture from the plant, which gives sugar its nutrients. Technically you’re consuming less sugar and calories per serving, making it a bit healthier. However, it is still high in sugar and calories and therefore should be used and ingested with moderation.
It can also appear as cane juice, which is often used to sweeten non-dairy milk like almond or hemp, and in many other healthier baking options. It can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio. In almost all of my vegan baking recipes, I use organic or raw cane sugar.
Raw dates, date sugar, or date syrup can be a great and healthy alternative to regular table sugar in your diet. The easiest way to substitute granulated sugar with dates is to chop up some dates and add them to your meal (eg oatmeal). Another way is to make date syrup at home by softening raw dates in water and then blending them into a thick paste.
In the store and online you can also purchase date syrup and date sugar. Date sugar can be used like granulated sugar. Because it is made with dehydrated dates that are ground to resemble granulated sugar.
Agave nectar or syrup is providing just a tiny bit more nutrients than refined sugar. Its taste, color, and texture remind of honey. Vegans can use agave as a honey substitute. (Learn more about honey and why vegans choose not to eat it, in this article from worldofvegan.) Due to its rich sweetness, you may not need to use it as much. Use in place of other sweeteners in nearly any cooking situation, which makes it so versatile and useful! For using agave you might have to make some changes to your regular recipes since it is a liquid.
However, it’s high in calories and contains a lot of fructose — even more than high-fructose corn syrup. Use Agave nectar generally in moderation.
Other natural sweeteners
Despite raw cane, dates, and agave, other natural sweeteners include: