We use sugar in many foods and drinks to sweeten them. It’s used routinely in our morning coffees. Loaded into our baked desserts. And added to our smoothies that are not as healthy anymore.
Most vegans—and the general public—would consider sugar to be vegan.
But is non-vegan sugar even a thing? This is not a typical question vegans think about. Surprisingly, this is a legitimate concern.
Why Some Sugars Are Not Vegan
Sugar does not contain animal products. Therefore, you would believe this sweetener is vegan.
However, the most common type of sugar is table sugar, also known as granulated, white or regular sugar.
Sugar is often derived from the sugarcane or sugar beet plants. They do this by crushing the juices out, heating it up, and then ending up with sugar crystals. These sugar crystals are further refined to get that white crystal sugar.
During the filtration process of sugarcane, bone char is used as a decolorizing filter to remove the molasses (resulting thick brown liquid) to make the sugar white. Bone char is exactly what it sounds like: highly heated bone usually from cows.
Bone char—a natural carbon—does come in contact with sugar during the filtration process, but there is no actual bone char in the final product of sugar. This is similar to putting boiled pasta through a strainer to remove water. There is no part of the strainer in the pasta when you eat it.
Due to the use of bone char, many individuals feel regular sugar is not vegan-friendly. To add to this dilemma, 80% of the world’s commercial sugar is from cane sugar.
The use of bone char in refining cane sugar is the standard and cheapest method. The good news is some companies are moving away from using bone chars. Alternative carbon-based filters are used by some cane sugar manufacturers making it completely vegan.
There are also different types of cane sugar:
Turbinado sugar is partially refined from sugar cane where only the surface molasses has been washed off.
Brown sugar is partially refined sugar cane and contains some surface molasses syrup. Some sugar manufacturers take refined white sugar and add molasses or colorize it to make it brown.
Turbinado or brown sugar may still not be vegan-friendly. The same applies for raw sugar. We don’t know the exact refinement process. Therefore, raw sugar may not be vegan.
White sugar derived from sugar beet never comes in contact with bone char. Sugar beet has a different refinement process than sugarcane and therefore no bone char is required. As a result, sugar from sugar beet is always vegan.
Powdered or confectioners’ sugar is made with crushed refined sugar. Depending on the source and refinement process it may or may not be vegan.
Frosting or icing sugar is often made from refined sugar and usually contains dairy or egg ingredients, making it not vegan.
Is Organic Sugar Vegan?
The definition of organic can be interpreted differently by individuals. Government food regulation agencies also define organic products differently.
Generally, organic food is free from fertilizers, pesticides, additives and synthetic chemicals.
With the United States Department of Agriculture, bone char can’t be used in the filtration process of certified organic sugar. This includes cane sugar. For this reason, organic sugar is vegan in the United States.
Is High-Fructose Corn Syrup Vegan?
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is derived from corn starch making it vegan. This sweetener is common in soft drinks and contributes to the obesity epidemic in many nations—tread carefully. In addition, soda products like Pepsi and Coca-Cola aren’t always vegan.
Is Non-GMO Sugar Vegan?
GMO stands for genetically modified organism. Technically, all sugar is non-GMO because sugar sweeteners don’t have a genetic code or genes. It would be the same thing as drinking non-GMO water—it can’t be genetically modified.
Some companies may use the term non-GMO sugar with their sugar products as a marketing scheme.
Ethically responsible sugar companies will use the non-GMO label with their sugar depending on the source of the sugar. In the case if table sugar came from non-GMO sugarcanes or sugar beets.
Sugar that came from non-GMO sources is most likely vegan, because it will probably fall within the organic agriculture methods.
How to Find Out If a Sugar Brand Is Vegan?
The best way to find out if a sugar brand is vegan is to contact the manufacturer. It’s very easy to assume a sugar is vegan even when bone char is not used in filtration. Animal testing or unsustainable farming could have been involved.
There are also vegan-friendly companies that produce sugar, so look for the vegan label.
Other ways to tell if a sugar is vegan is to look for labels of organic, raw, unrefined or natural. This isn’t a failproof way but helps in decision making.
When purchasing vegan sugar, you should also look for fair trade certifications. Fair trade ensures workers such as farmers make a living wage, certifies sustainable environmental practices were used, and the products are non-GMO. But keep in mind the fair-trade certification can apply to non-vegan food industries including seafood.
Sugar as Ingredients in Other Products
Many processed foods that contain sugar don’t always obtain their sugar from the same manufacturer for supply and demand reasons. For example, packaged cookies that seem to contain vegan ingredients may not actually be vegan if they keep getting sugar from different sources: the cheapest source. It’s hard to track the origin of the sugar and determine if it’s vegan-friendly.
Below is a list of refined and natural sugars, that are vegan and can be used as sweeteners:
- Beet Sugar
- Brown Rice Syrup
- Coconut Sugar
- Monk Fruit
- Organic Sugar
- Beet Sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Yacon Root Syrup
Some individuals still consider themselves to be vegan even when they consume table sugar derived from bone-char filtration. The argument for this is because the final product doesn’t have animal products in it.
To put this argument into perspective, think about employees that work at an apple orchard or avocado farm and use leather gloves to pick the fruits. Even if we don’t know if they used leather gloves or not, chances are high that some of them have.
If you end up eating an apple or avocado touched by a leather glove, will you still consider yourself a vegan? It’s about being practical and to find a way to move in the right direction with veganism and not discourage others.
The best method to making sure you consume vegan sugar is to educate yourself about the product and manufacturing process. This isn’t always ideal or easily attainable information. But the effort goes a long way. Substituting unlabeled table sugar from sugarcane with an unrefined, natural vegan alternative will also ensure you’re consuming sugar ethically.