Is Sugar Vegan? Bone Char, Processing, & Alternatives Explained

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Is Sugar Vegan? You May Be Surprised

Is sugar vegan? The short answer is…not always. Some sugars are processed with bone char, which is kind of like a carbon filter made from turning animal bones into ash. It can be used to filter sugar cane juice in order to create refined white sugar. This type of processing makes it non-vegan-friendly. However, there is another option for vegan sweeteners: unprocessed sugars that come from beets, coconut, dates, or other sources such as maple syrup or molasses.

Here is the in-depth explanation of sugar that every vegan should know.

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Is Sugar Vegan Introduction

People choose the vegan lifestyle for a lot of different reasons. Some make the switch for health reasons, others to eat a more environmentally sustainable diet, and still out of concern for animal welfare.

People choose the vegan lifestyle for many different reasons, including animal welfare

Regardless of your reasoning, making sure there are no animal-derived ingredients in the food you eat is one of the main things you probably do on a daily basis.

Most animal food ingredients are pretty easy to identify. Meat, dairy, eggs, honey, and gelatin are very straightforward. Those are straight-up animal!

But what about sugar? Sugar isn’t an animal. It’s from plants. It should be safe and cruelty-free, right?

Not always. The granulated sugar we have all come to know and love has to be processed to attain that pure white color. There are a few ways of refining the sugarcane, and one of the methods involves the use of bone char.

To give you all the information you need to make the best decision for yourself and your family I’m going to cover the following topics:

  • Where does sugar come from?
  • How and why is sugar processed?
  • What is bone char?
  • How do I know if the sugar I’m eating vegan and cruelty-free?

Before we begin, I want to say one thing; please don’t stress too much about sugar and how it was processed. By choosing the vegan lifestyle you are saving the lives of countless animals every single year.

Sometimes we get lost in extremely small details and need to take a step back and think more broadly.

And the example you set for friends, family, and coworkers is huge! Your choice has the potential to influence the lives of so many! But how many people are going to follow your example if they think they have to stress bout something as small as whether or not they can eat table sugar? Especially since it’s in everything!

Living a compassionate lifestyle is easy and incredibly rewarding. That’s what we should all focus on.

Okay, let’s begin!

What is Sugar?

Sugar is a generic name for a sweet-tasting, soluble, short-chain carbohydrate. A lot of foods fit this definition! Maple syrup, agave, dates. And many of those are used to make sweeteners.

But here I’m going to focus on refined white sugar, commonly called table sugar for this article.

Sugar is a sweetener, commonly made from sugarcane and sugar beets

Table sugar is made of a special carbohydrate called sucrose. Table sugar is made by extracting sucrose from certain plants. Sugarcane (hence the name Cane Sugar) or sugar beets are used because they have really high concentrations of sucrose.

Beet sugar is always vegan. So is coconut sugar. Read how they’re processed here.

So let’s focus on white table sugar, which can be vegan or not depending on how it’s processed.

The Refining Process

Once the plants are harvested, the tough part is extracting and purifying sucrose from them.

That is where bone char comes in.

Bone Char – The Reason Your Table Sugar May Not Be Vegan

Bone char (charred animal bones), also referred to as natural carbon, is a decolorizing agent that is used to give sugar the snow-white color you’re used to. It also absorbs any inorganic material from the raw sugarcane.

Sugar Can Be Refined Through Bone Char

Raw sugar from sugarcane often varies in color, but tends to be on the brown side. While this is perfectly natural and safe, it’s not as appetizing for consumers as pure, standardized, white cane sugar. And it’s hard to standardize its color, which manufacturers don’t like.

The bone char used by US sugar companies comes specifically from cattle bones. The bones are harvested after slaughter, typically in Afghanistan, Argentina, India, or Pakistan, and then eventually sold to US sugar factories to process sugar. (1)

According to a 1996 interview conducted by members of the Vegetarian Resource Group with the Sugar Association, all bones used to make bone char come from cows that have died of “natural causes”. Bone char cannot, however, be produced or bought in the United States, which is why it’s sourced from the countries above. (2)

It’s a great thought. That the cows died of natural causes. Are we 100 percent certain? No.

It takes about 7,800 cows to make a single commercial sugar filter.

Sugar refineries use the carbon from animal bones to filter out impurities in refined sugar (table sugar). Because bone char is made of charred animal bones it is very high in carbon. This makes it perfect for the job.

Is All Table Sugar Processed Using Bone Char?

Nope. Most table sugar comes from either sugarcane or sugar beets. It’s pretty close to fifty-fifty.

Sugar beets are not processed using bone char, so table sugar from beets is completely vegan.

Sugar Beets Are Always Vegan

Sugarcane can be processed in three different ways to make the final product: by granulated carbon (vegan), an ion exchange system (vegan), or by using bone char.

The granulated carbon has either a wood or coal base, and the ion exchange method doesn’t require the use of any animal products

About half of all refined cane sugar was processed with bone char.

Even then it’s really hard to know how often bone char is actually used in the refining process. Companies are not required to state whether or not they use bone char. They don’t have to, but they can.

And some companies actually have no idea!

Sugar companies, like C&H or Domino, will likely know exactly how their sugar is refined. But companies that use sugar in their products, like a Hershey’s chocolate bar, for example, won’t know. They get their sugar from third-party companies, and they don’t check into how the sugar they got was processed.

PETA likes to keep lists, though. Here are the companies that definitely do not use bone char filters:

Michigan Sugar Company
Florida Crystals Corporation
SuperValu
Western Sugar
Wholesome!
C&H Sugar Company
Savannah Foods
Tate & Lyle North American Sugars Inc. (formerly Domino Sugar)
Imperial Sugar
Refined Sugars Inc.

I have no idea if these are the sugars used in any processed foods. But at least I know I can buy these refined white sugars at the store and not be supporting animal exploitation.

How to Tell if Sugar is Vegan

Sugar that comes from sugar beets is vegan. The processing of sugar beets does not involve bone char.

Here is the beet sugar I buy, from NOW Foods.

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But if cane sugar is your thing (and let’s face it, it’s delicious!) you can definitely find brands, or products, that are vegan-friendly. Some may say that they are vegan on the package, but that’s pretty rare.

Instead, here are a few words to look for on sugar packaging that indicates it’s vegan:

Organic
Unrefined
Natural
Raw

Unrefined, natural, and raw are pretty straightforward. But what about organic?

As of January 2020 bone char is not on the USDA Organic Program’s National List of Allowed Substances. So certified USDA organic sugar cannot be filtered through bone char.

The process of producing organic sugar involves boiling the sugarcane juices, spinning them in a centrifuge, and then drying them into sugar crystals.

What you’ll notice with these forms of sugar, all except the organic cane sugar is that they won’t have that snow-white look. That’s what many companies use bone char for.

But that doesn’t affect the taste or effectiveness of the sugar in baking at all. The reason for whitening the sugar is purely cosmetic. Manufacturers simply found that it looks more appealing.

Healthier Sugar Alternatives

I can’t have an article about sugar and not discuss healthier alternatives.

I love sweet foods as much as the next person, but rarely do I eat sugar. Without going into all of the specifics, it’s really not good for you. But you already knew that.

That doesn’t mean I don’t indulge from time to time. But, when given the choice, I try and bake with healthier options. So, here are some of my favorites.

Date Sugar – 2/3:1 ratio of date sugar to white or brown sugar. So 2/3 cup date sugar to 1 cup white or brown. This is because date sugar is sweeter than white or brown sugars.

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Date Paste – Substitute 1 cup date paste for 1 cup of sugar and decrease the liquid in your recipe by 3 to 4 tablespoons for each 1 cup substituted. Learn how to make a simple date paste here.

Date Syrup – 2/3:1 date syrup to sugar. 2/3 cup date syrup for every 1 cup of sugar and decrease the liquid in your recipe by 3 to 4 tablespoons for each 1 cup substituted. Learn how to make date syrup here.

Coconut Sugar – 1:1 ratio coconut sugar to white or brown sugar.

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Agave Nectar – for every 1 cup of white sugar use 2/3 cup agave and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup. For every 1 cup of brown sugar use 2/3 cup agave and reduce the liquid in the recipe by 2 tablespoons.

Pure Maple Syrup – 1:1 maple syrup to white or brown sugar, but decrease the liquid in your recipe by 3 to 4 tablespoons for every 1 cup substituted

Apple Sauce – 1 to 1 1/2 parts applesauce for every 1 part of sugar. Apple sauce is not as sweet as sugar, so you may want to go on the high side if you are really looking for sweet. This also depends on whether or not you choose sweetened or unsweetened apple sauce. Decrease other liquids in your recipe depending on how much apple sauce you use.

Just remember that when replacing sugar with natural sweeteners, the recipe may require additional tweaking.

To Sum Up…

  • Beet sugar is always vegan
  • Organic, natural, raw, and unrefined cane sugar are vegan
  • Granulated refined sugars are not vegan unless they use one of the 4 terms above
  • There are a lot of alternative options for sweetening your favorite foods and desserts

Is Brown Sugar Vegan?

Brown sugar is simply white sugar with molasses added. So it depends on whether or not the white sugar is vegan-friendly.

Is Powdered Sugar Vegan?

Powdered sugar is made by combining finely ground white sugar with cornstarch. As with brown sugar, whether or not powdered sugar is vegan depends on the cane sugar that was used.

Sugar in Processed Foods

Sugar in Processed Foods

Here’s where things get a bit tricky. It’s easy enough to choose a vegan sugar if you are baking at home. Now you know what to look for!

But what about things that have sugar added to them? How do you know if the sugar in your favorite candy bar or bag of Doritos is vegan?

In all honesty, you don’t. And neither do the companies. They get most of their ingredients from 3rd party companies, and then they create their products using their secret formulas.

They don’t check whether or not the sugar they source for their candy bar was processed using bone char. Unless they are a vegan company, or the candy bar has a certified vegan trademark on the package.

But remember back to when I said that half of all sugar is sugarcane and the other half is sugar beets? And that only half of sugarcane is processed using bone char? So half of half of the total sugar is processed with bone char.

Or a roughly 25 percent chance the sugar in your candy bar involved animal processing at some point.

And beet sugar is actually used in processed foods more often than refined cane sugar because it is less expensive.

So, here’s the thing…

Chances are the processed food you’re considering buying was made using vegan-friendly sugar.

And even if it wasn’t, the question is, how much does that actually matter?

To you, it may matter a lot.

To me, I’m already vegan. If I have a clear choice, I’ll choose the definitely-vegan-version every, single, time. But I also know that I’m making a huge difference every day.

And I want more people to be more vegan. Completely vegan would actually be my preference. But I know that people aren’t going to follow my lead if I’m hassling them about whether or not the 16 grams of added sugar in their candy bar was run through bone char.

Just sayin’.

Is Sugar Vegan Conclusion

Sugar is a tricky topic, and I’m glad you’re here to learn about it! The good news is that not all sugar is processed with bone char. Beet sugar is always vegan-friendly, as are organic cane sugars when labeled natural or unrefined.

When in doubt, avoid refined granulated sugars unless they specify being organic, raw, natural, or unrefined. Or choose one of my favorite cane sugar substitutes the next time you make homemade brownies!

And don’t stress too much about added sugars in processed foods (other than trying to limit how many processed foods you’re eating). It’s more likely than not that the sugar used to make your candy bar is vegan, and even if it isn’t you’re still making a massive impact every day.

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. I’m proud to be vegan, and I’m proud of you for at least trying.

What are your thoughts? Should vegans avoid all sugar unless they know for certain it’s vegan-friendly?

References

  1. Are animal ingredients included in white sugar? PETA. (2015, October 14). Retrieved January 6, 2022, from https://www.peta.org/about-peta/faq/are-animal-ingredients-included-in-white-sugar/
  2. Pyevich, Caroline. “Vegetarian Journal.” Vegetarian Journal Mar/Apr 97 Sugar and Other Sweeteners — The Vegetarian Resource Group, Apr. 1997, https://www.vrg.org/journal/vj97mar/973sugar.htm.

*Author's Note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The content of our articles is not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It's always best to speak with your doctor or a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet, or exercise routine, or trying a new supplement.

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AUTHOR
Matt Walter, CHN, M.A.T
I studied Food Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University and interned as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for the WSU football team. I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and former personal trainer and competitive CrossFit athlete. My mission is to make embracing and adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle simple and fun!