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Is Sugar Vegan Friendly?

Sugar is the name given to a broad range of sweet and soluble carbohydrates, which are eaten by millions of people. It is an ingredient that is used in a variety of products and meals and is mostly found in desserts and candies. This make makes it one of the most popular substances all around the world. 

Sugar can also carry health risks which have gained it a bad reputation with nutritionists and health professionals. Still, one of the questions constantly overlooked is whether sugar is adequate for vegans. And if so, what are the considerations people should keep in mind when consuming sugar?

In this article, we will walk you through how sugar is made, the different types of sugar and we look at why sugar is or is not vegan. 

How is Sugar Made? 

Contrary to popular belief, sugar is not a single ingredient. The substance can come from a variety of sources, but the two most popular are sugarcane and sugar derived from sugar beets. 

Sugarcane is a tropical plant, found and harvested around all around the world, with the main two producers being Brazil (Around 41% of the world production) and India (18%).

Sugar production worldwide in 2019/2020, by leading country (in million metric tons) – statista.com

The sugarcane stores its sugar on the leaves of the plant. Once it’s harvested, the crop is conveyed to the sugar mill, and from there, the cane juice is extracted, filtered, and crystallized. Then, the raw product is taken to a refinery.

Sugar beets, on the other hand, grow in colder and more seasonal climates. The world’s leading producer is Russia (19%), with France coming just behind. In this plant, the sugar can be found in the roots rather than the leaves, but the production up until the refining process it’s not extremely different from that of the sugarcane.

So far, there’s nothing that hints at sugar not being vegan, but it’s in the refining process where things become more complex. 

For starters, to refine cane sugar, the stalks of the plant are crushed in order to extract the juice. Once processed, the sugar is filtered and bleached in bone char – sometimes regarded as the ‘natural carbon’ – in order to give the product the desirable white appearance. Bone char comes from the bones of cattle in countries like Afghanistan, India, and Argentina, and it’s made by heating up the bones to the point they resemble the appearance of natural carbon.

One thing that’s important to note is that not all cane sugar refineries utilize bone char to bleach the substance. Still, because it’s difficult to tell whether bone char was used in the bleaching process, many vegans consider refined cane sugar to not be vegan.

The good news is that all beet sugar is vegan. The refining process does not utilize bone char or any other animal-based product.

5 Popular Types Of Sugar Vegans Should Be Aware Of

  • White Sugar: White sugar is probably the most popular of all sugars. Also called “granulated” or “refined”, this type of sugar sometimes uses bone char to achieve its white color. 
  • Icing Sugar: Mostly used for baking or cooking, icing sugar is actually white sugar that has been ground until it becomes a powder. 
  • Brown Sugar: Many people like to think brown sugar is vegan because it has not been bleached. Still, brown sugar can be made by adding molasses to white sugar (which in turn could have been refined using bone char)
  • Syrup: Although there’s plenty of ways to make syrup, one popular origin is by heating white sugar with water. On the bright side, two of the most popular syrups, maple and golden, are 100% vegan.
  • Muscovado Sugar: Sometimes mistaken with brown sugar, muscovado sugar is dark brown in color, and contains more nutrients and minerals than traditional sugars. Because its unrefined muscovado sugar is totally fit for a vegan diet.

Now we have discussed what makes sugar vegan (and what doesn’t), you may be wondering if you have to throw out and avoid white sugar or can vegans eat sugar?. Let’s find out in the next section of the article.

Is Sugar Cane Vegan?

Like we mentioned above, cane sugar can involve the use of bone char during its refining practice. While the actual product does not contain bone char, bone char is the result of animal abuse, making many vegans stay clear of it.

The good news? Not all refineries use bone char. Others used granular carbon and other alternatives that don’t require the sugar to come into contact with products of animal origin. Over the past decade, multiple vegan and animal-rights organizations have pushed companies to stop using bone char and to be more open about their sugar refining practices.

What Kind Of Sugar Is Vegan: Alternatives to Sugar (Particularly White Sugar)

Even though sugar and white sugar in particular can be vegan, many people decide to remain on the safe side. Refined sugar can also pose health risks if consumed regularly. Here are some alternatives we recommend you try out: 

  • Stevia Sugar: Obtained from a plant called Stevia rebaudiana, found throughout South America, stevia is an excellent alternative to those who want to avoid refined sugars altogether. Because it has zero glycemic index, this plant-based sweetener is also recommended for people who suffer from diabetes.
  • Coconut sugar: Just as the name entails, coconut sugar comes from the sap of the coconut tree. Although it has been debated whether coconut sugar is actually beneficial to your health, the sugar does not contain any type of animal product nor does it come into contact with one.
  • Organic Sugar: Organic sugar can be either unrefined cane sugar and beet sugar, or raw sugar. One thing that’s important to note is that organic sugar doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier, but as it can’t be filtered by bone char, it’s much more safe and better for the environment.
  • Date Sugar: Date sugar comes from the date palm tree and it’s fairly popular in many South Asian cultures. Unlike coconut sugar, date sugar doesn’t originate in the sap of the tree, but rather is a granulated form of the tree’s fruit. 

There are plenty of other vegan sweeteners that can provide a safe and healthy alternative to sugar. Now that you are aware of a few alternatives, let’s look at how you can avoid bone char.

How To Avoid Bone Char

Depending on your lifestyle or where in the world you live, having access to alternatives to sugar may be difficult.

If you want to make sure the sugar you are purchasing is fit for your diet you can always check for the packaging to determine whether or not the product is vegan.

Words such as “organic” or “unrefined” ensure bone char was not used in the refining process. If the dietary information does not specify this, you can always check online for the brand’s description, and if the information is not available, all companies have a number available for customers to call with product inquiries. 

Final Thought

Although sugar is mostly plant-based and is not considered an animal product, bone char can sometimes be used during the refining process of white sugar or cane sugar. If you want to make sure the ingredient you are consuming didn’t come into contact with animal products, we advise you to check the label of the product or to stick with healthier, vegan-free alternatives. 

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