It’s pretty easy to tell whether some ingredients are vegan or not. However, some of the staple ingredients in our pantries at home can cause confusion.
‘Is sugar vegan’ is one of the most-asked questions about the vegan diet, which may be surprising to some of our readers since most types of sugar either come from sugar beet or sugarcane, both of which are plants.
However, the deciding factor in whether a specific variety or brand of sugar can be considered vegan lies in the production process, which makes things much more complicated.
Animal rights organization Peta has urged vegans not to worry too much about the vegan status of individual sugar brands because figuring out how it’s been produced can be tricky.
However, most vegans still want to be sure that they’re not contributing to animal agriculture when they make a batch of cookies or add sugar to their coffee.
Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most popular sugar varieties and discuss whether or not they are vegan based on how they are produced.
Is Sugar Vegan-Friendly?
Unfortunately, you can’t tell if sugar is vegan simply by looking at the ingredients list. In theory, sugar should be vegan because it’s made from the tissues of plants like sugar beet or sugar cane.
However, some of the production methods used to turn sugar into the granules or powder we have in our pantries involve animal products, making them unsuitable for vegans.
The main types of sugar you’re likely to use most often are beet sugar and cane sugar, so we’re going to be focusing on these first.
We’ll also be discussing powdered sugar, brown sugar, and other types of sugar like date sugar and coconut sugar before moving on to talking about some of the best vegan sugar and sugar alternative brands.
How is Beet Sugar Made?
Beet sugar is one of the most popular types of sugar found in stores, but most people don’t know how it’s made despite using and consuming it in various ways.
The Production Process
The first step to producing any kind of sugar is harvesting, so the process of making beet sugar begins with harvesting the sugar beets. The sugar beets are dug out of the ground, washed, and have their leaves removed.
Then, the process of extracting the sugar from the sugar beets begins. This involves putting thin slices of sugar beet into hot water so that the sugar inside the plant’s tissues is drawn into the water.
The resulting solution is called sugar juice. After that, the sugar beets are pressed to extract even more sugar.
Once as much sugar juice has been extracted from the sugar beets as possible, pieces of chalk are added to the juice to collect the non-sugars in the juice. This helps to ensure that only pure sugar remains in the solution.
The juice, which should now be free of non-sugars, is boiled, causing excess liquid to evaporate.
At this point, it’s ready to be made into crystals by adding sugar dust to the sugar juice (now sugar syrup). Crystals form in the mixture and are filtered out using centrifuges.
The result, after a period of drying, is pure white sugar ready to be packaged and sold.
From the process outlined above, it is clear that beet sugar production doesn’t involve any animal products or by-products, which means that vegans can freely enjoy this type of sugar without worrying about compromising their lifestyle.
What About Cane Sugar?
Cane sugar, unlike beet sugar, is made from sugarcane. Since sugarcane is a plant, it is natural to assume that cane sugar is suitable for vegans.
However, there is a stage in the sugar cane production process that vegans should know about before purchasing or consuming cane sugar.
The Production Process
Like beet sugar, cane sugar production starts with a harvest. In the case of sugarcane, the harvesting process involves cutting off the stems but leaving the roots intact. This is so that the roots can regrow.
Rather than placing the sugarcane in hot water, extraction is carried out by crushing the sugarcane. The juice is then purified with slaked lime and boiled so that the excess liquid is reduced.
Just like with beet sugar, the crystals are created by adding sugar dust to the syrup.
Again, the crystals are separated from the rest of the mixture in centrifuges, resulting in crystals that are ready to be dried and stored and liquid molasses.
When cane sugar crystals are separated from the syrup, they are light brown. To make the sugar white (a process known as refining) natural carbon needs to be used.
In the sugar industry, the natural carbon used is typically bone char, which is the product of heated-up animal bones.
Of course, since bone char is an animal byproduct, it isn’t vegan.
Some vegans would still consider cane sugar to be vegan because there are no bone particles in the final product, but most vegans will still want to steer clear of refined cane sugar since the use of bone char in the filtering process still means that purchasing the sugar supports the use of animal products.
If you buy unrefined cane sugar, you can be pretty sure that it’s vegan since the use of bone char to make cane sugar only occurs during the refining process.
However, refined cane sugar is typically not considered vegan even though no bone char actually makes it into the sugar because there’s still an animal byproduct involved in the process.
Can Vegans Eat Brown Sugar?
So, now we know that beet sugar is vegan, and cane sugar can be vegan as long as it isn’t refined, but refined cane sugar isn’t vegan because it’s made using bone char.
But what about brown sugar? Is that suitable for vegans?
Ultimately, whether brown sugar is vegan-friendly or not depends on whether it’s made from refined or unrefined cane sugar.
Brown sugar is made by combining white sugar and molasses. Most of the time, brown sugar contains anywhere between 3.5% and 6.5% molasses.
Since molasses are filtered out of cane sugar syrup before the bone char is added, it is vegan.
The exception to this would be if the white sugar added to the molasses had been refined. In this case, the sugar would have been produced using bone char and, therefore, would not be vegan.
The Question of Powdered Sugar
Many vegans use powdered sugar for baking, so if you’re a vegan baker, you’re probably concerned about whether or not this type of sugar is suitable for your diet and lifestyle.
Luckily, it is definitely possible for powdered sugar to be vegan, but the situation is much the same as brown sugar.
Powdered sugar is a combination of ground sugar and cornstarch. If the cane sugar that has been ground to produce the ground sugar has been refined, the powdered sugar can’t be considered vegan due to the use of bone char in production.
However, unrefined cane sugar can also be made into powdered sugar, which would be suitable for vegans.
Date Sugar and Coconut Sugar
Date sugar and coconut sugar are popular substitutes for regular sugar, and vegans will be pleased to hear that the production process for these sugar varieties is basically the same as for beet sugar.
No filtration is required to produce either coconut sugar or date sugar, so you don’t need to worry about bone char being used for refinement. Therefore, date sugar and coconut sugar are both vegan.
The Best Vegan Sugar Brands
Since checking the ingredients on the back of a sugar packet won’t necessarily tell you whether it’s vegan or not, the best thing to do if you want to be 100% sure that your sugar is vegan is to stick to certified vegan brands.
Some of the best vegan sugar brands include:
- Anthony’s Premium Organic Cane Sugar
- Sugar In The Raw Organic Granulated White Premium Cane Sugar
- Big Tree Farms Organic Brown Coconut Sugar
- 365 b Wholefoods Organic Light Brown Sugar
- Wholesome Organic Powdered Sugar
- PurDate Organic Date Sugar
Vegan Sugar Replacements
If you’re trying to lead a healthier lifestyle by avoiding sugar, you can still sweeten your favorite foods and drinks with vegan sugar replacements.
Some vegan sugar alternatives we highly recommend include:
- Pyure Organic Stevia
- Bee Free Honee
- Wholesome Organic Blue Agave Nectar
- Lundberg Family Farms Sweet Dreams Organic Brown Rice Syrup
- Plantation Organic Blackstrap Molasses
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Bone Char Used to Refine Sugar in the UK?
While refined cane sugar in the US almost always uses bone char, the majority of sugar brands in the UK are vegan because bone char is not used in the refining process.
Can Vegans Eat Honey?
Honey is a popular substitute for sugar, but vegans won’t be able to replace non-vegan sugar with honey since honey is an animal byproduct and, therefore, also not vegan.
Is Salt Vegan?
Since some sugar is not vegan, it’s natural to wonder whether salt is vegan. Salt is never refined or filtered using animal products, so it’s always vegan.
While beet sugar and unrefined varieties of cane sugar, brown sugar, and powdered sugar are all vegan, refined cane sugar in the US is not vegan because bone char is used in the refining process.
Date sugar and coconut sugar are vegan, though, and there are also plenty of vegan-friendly sugar alternatives.
If you’re just finding out that some sugar isn’t vegan, don’t feel bad – any effort to use more plant-based products is beneficial to the animals and the planet.