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The Vegan Debate: Is Sugar Vegan?

Jason Hughes
Published by Jason Hughes
Fact checked by Markus Oliver, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: January 25, 2022

Is sugar vegan? Well, as much as we'd love to give you a clear answer, it's not possible. Long story short, it depends. While yes, some sugar is vegan, that's not always the case.

Sure, in general, sugar does come from plants, which should automatically mean it's vegan-friendly, right? Wrong. That's true only for raw sugar. At homes, however, we mostly use refined sugar, which can mean a bone char was used in its production process.

Generally speaking, we can divide refined sugar into white, brown, and powdered sugar. These types of sugar can be made of either sugarcane or beets (there's also coconut sugar). Simply put, sugar made of sugar beets is always vegan. When it comes to sugarcane sugar, though, the story is slightly more complicated.

As you probably suspect, it all comes down to the refining process. This is why it's so vital for a vegan to get a general picture of how different types of refined sugar are made. And with this in mind, we've prepared the following guide.

What Is Refined Sugar?

Okay, we've already covered that vegans should be careful about refined sugar, not organic sugar, which is always 100% vegan. Natural sugar is found in fruits as fructose, which should be one of the cores of a vegan diet. In other words, there's nothing to worry about there.

Refined sugar, on the other hand, refers to sucrose that can be found in sugar beets and sugar cane. When processed, the sucrose is extracted from the plant and made into white sugar, brown sugar, or powdered sugar.

Refined sugar can also be extracted from coconut and date palm, but they aren't as popular as beet sugar or cane sugar. Also, both coconut sugar and date sugar are vegan, so you if feel free to use them for your vegan meals.

Beet Sugar vs. Cane Sugar

As mentioned, the key to defining whether table sugar is vegan or not is the production process, which is different for beet and cane sugar. Let's take a closer look at processing steps of the two:

Refined Beet Sugar

Sugar beets are the root vegetable. Harvested at the turn of autumn and winter, they are later thoroughly cleaned and separated from leaves. After washing, beets are cut into thin slices and placed in hot water to extract sugar into the water, creating sugar juice in the process.

Then we get to the carbonation, which involves growing small clumps of chalk in the juice to remove any non-sugars from it. Once all the non-sugars are collected from the juice, it's boiled to remove excess liquid. After this step, the remaining syrup is ready for crystal formation.

Sugar crystal formation starts with adding sugar dust to the juice. Once the sugar crystals are formed, they are separated from the remaining syrup and dried. The result is pure white sugar, ready to use straight away.

And that's about it. Only one question remains - is refined beet sugar vegan? Yes, it is. There are no animal products involved in its production, making it 100% vegan-friendly.

Refined Cane Sugar

Cane sugar derives from sugarcane, harvested by chopping off the stems. The roots are left untouched as they will regrow in additional crops. Then comes the extraction, which is typically done by crushing the cane through large rollers, resulting in sugar juice.

The juice is then cleaned from all the remaining leaves and dirt. Producers also add slaked lime to remove any non-sugars from the syrup. Then, similar to beet sugar, the juice is boiled to get rid of excess liquid, with the remaining syrup ready for crystal formation.

The crystallization process is practically identical to the case of sugar beets. The only difference is that it results in the sugar of a light brown color. To become a standard white sugar, it needs to go through refining.

This process involves putting the sugar cane through a decolorizing filter - natural carbon. And while this isn't always the case in the cane sugar industry, it's usually bone char. Bone char is carbon made by heating animal bones at very high temperatures. It is what then gives refined cane sugar that white color.

Since bone char is used to refine sugar, refined cane sugar is not vegan. However, it's vital to point here that this doesn't refer to unrefined type. Raw cane sugar is 100% vegan, so it's important to pay attention when buying products with cane sugar in it.

What About Brown Sugar and Powdered Sugar?

Okay, you already know that white sugar made of beets is always vegan, whereas cane sugar remains vegan until it's filtered through bone char. But what about brown and powdered sugar?

Let's start with brown sugar. It's produced by adding molasses to white sugar. Molasses is a dark thick syrup made during the sugar juice heating step explained above. The molasses itself is vegan, as it's produced before the refining of cane sugar takes place.

Does it make brown sugar vegan? Not necessarily.

If molasses is mixed with beet sugar, then yes, it's 100% vegan. On the other hand, when molasses is added to while cane sugar (after refining with bone char), it can't be considered vegan.

Powdered sugar is produced by mixing finely ground white sugar with cornstarch. Like in the case of brown sugar, its vegan-friendliness depends on the type of white sugar used as a base. If the sugar is vegan, it automatically makes powdered sugar vegan too, and vice versa.

What to Look for When Buying Vegan Sugar

Generally speaking, when buying sugar made of beets, coconuts, or dates, you have nothing to worry about. These are 100% compatible with your vegan lifestyle. However, refined cane sugar is not vegan as it involves the use of bone char.

The best idea is always to read labels. While some sugar and products are labeled organic or vegan, there are numerous others that aren't certified to do that. If you see that the sugar you want to buy is labeled raw, natural, organic, or unrefined, you should be safe to buy and use it.

Again, this is the case where white cane sugar is involved. In the case of beet, coconut, or date sugar, you can rest assured they're all vegan sugars.

Sugar Alternatives for Vegans

Of course, it's important to note that you aren't limited to refined sugars. In fact, if you want your vegan diet to be as healthy as possible, you should look for sugar alternatives. Fortunately, you have plenty of choices when it comes to that, including:

  • Maple syrup
  • Agave
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Molasses
  • Bee-free honey
  • Stevia
  • Monk fruit

If you can't find vegan sugar for any reason, using these natural sweeteners are an ideal substitute.

In Conclusion

So is sugar vegan? As you can see, this simple question has a much more complex answer than most people think. In its essence, sugar is indeed vegan. That's not always the case with refined white sugar, though. Although refined beet sugar is vegan-friendly, the same cannot be said about refined cane sugar.

In the first case, the whole production process is vegan. Refining cane sugar, however, involves filtering it with bone char, a carbon made of animal bones. That's why, as a vegan, it's vital you always check every label and shop for vegan sugar brands if possible.

The same goes for other sweetened products. If something is made of using refined cane sugar, the chances are it's a non-vegan product. If you aren't sure about something, it's best to stick to sugar derived from sugar beets, coconuts, or dates. You can also opt for numerous vegan sugar alternatives such as maple syrup or bee-free honey.

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