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When you hear the word “caramel,” do you picture golden-brown liquid drizzled on top of a layer cake? Maybe you first think of coating apples with this sweet substance on Halloween. Or perhaps, you envision this gooey goodness as a round, bite-size morsel encased by chocolate.

Since caramel is a key ingredient of many treats, we should probably ask ourselves a few questions before indulging: Is caramel vegan? And if not, is there a form of vegan caramel? Or what are some good vegan caramel alternatives? Should I even be eating it, period?

Okay… now it’s time to get to work and clean up this sticky situation!

What is caramel?

white pot of vegan caramel on a board with cubes of toffee atop a table

According to an article by Fine Cooking, caramel is sugar that’s been cooked until it browns, or ‘caramelizes.’ When the sugar heats up, it melts, then it darkens, and the result is a development of complex flavors. So, what begins as a light-and-white, sweet tasting, crystalline substance eventually morphs into an increasingly savory, thick-and-black liquid (with many stops along the way).

In its purest definition, caramel equals sugar plus heat. You might be familiar with the thin, crunchy layer of sugar that sits atop crème brulee? Even though the cream in crème is usually dairy-based (and so, discounts it from being a vegan dessert), the caramelized sugar component is technically vegan.

Here’s a great video that discusses the physics of caramelization:

Context for caramelization

But, before we can confidently label a product as vegan or not, it’s crucial for us to consider every step of the production process, and this is especially true for caramel. So, let’s take a more detailed look at the stages of caramelization and get rooted in some necessary high-level knowledge:

320 degrees Fahrenheit: Crystalline sugar becomes molten (liquid) sugar.

 

340-350 degrees Fahrenheit: The color of the liquid shifts to light brown. At this point, you can drip the caramel a top of your favorite dessert, such as a scoop of coconut milk ice cream or a raw cacao bar, and the liquid will harden, becoming almost glass-like when cooled.

 

365-380 degrees Fahrenheit: The liquid becomes a darker brown, and instead, it will cool off to yield a softer-and-stickier texture. This is the stage when commercial companies and ambitious amateurs alike will often blend the molten sugar with milk and/or butter to prevent further browning and create opaque-looking caramel syrups, sauces and candies.

Check out this video on how to make your own totally vegan caramel sauce at home!

What about caramel color?

The hottest point of production (about 410 degrees Fahrenheit!) yields a result known as black caramel (or baker’s caramel). This substance has a bitter taste, and it’s used as a browning agent for various food products, including soft drinks like cola.

While lactose is allowed for the production of caramel color, it is rarely used, and so, it is most likely vegan. And thanks to FALCPA (Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act) if a product contains any derivation of milk, the label should say so.

But while probably vegan, an article by Go Dairy Free states that consumption may be a giant risk to your health. In addition to heating sugar, caramel color is forged through reactions of sugar with ammonia and sulfites, a chemical process that has produced carcinogens in government-conductions animal studies.

So, can we call caramel vegan?

caramel apples on grease-proof paper

By studying caramelization we now know that, while caramel as heated sugar is inherently vegan, it’s the added dairy-based ingredients during the production process that yield non-vegan products.

So, while most companies will clearly state the full spectrum of ingredients on their package labels, if an item in a bag or box contains “caramel,” and there’s no further specification, it’s probably best to default to the majority, and leave those items on the shelf.

The same goes for sauces and syrups offered at popular restaurants. For example, you might be wondering is Starbucks caramel vegan? Unfortunately, no, it’s not vegan, but here’s a great article by PETA that serves as a “how-to” guide for navigating their menu. They actually do have many vegan accommodations!

READ NEXT: CAN VEGANS EAT STARBURST CANDIES?

Vegan caramel alternatives

white bowl of caramel sauce with sliced apple and a spoon on the side

While you may not be able to get your vegan caramel fix at Starbucks, there are some products that you can count on being vegan (which’ll allow you to rest your weary nerves!). Here are some of my favorites:

Cocomels coconut milk caramels

Not only are these vegan caramels made with coconut milk, but they’re organic, kosher and non-GMO. They come in original flavor, vanilla, espresso, sea salt, and a variety pack so you’re bound to find one to suit your taste.

Hey Boo coconut caramel sauce

Made in the USA, this vegan caramel sauce is also gluten-free and uses no corn syrup, which I’m sure will please many of you (as it does me). By the way, Hey Boo’s Coconut Chocolate spread is equally delicious, too.

Nature’s Charm coconut salted caramel sauce

Dairy, gluten and soy free, this vegan option includes sea salt as well, although their straight caramel is a winner when you need something more traditional.

Amella Gray salt caramels

This company hand-makes their caramels, using raw blue weber agave nectar (as opposed to refined sugar) and organic 77% cocoa dark chocolate. These caramels are also sprinkled with gray sea salt that’s been hand-harvested off the coast of Brittany, France. Fancy!

A healthful reminder

jar of homemade vegan caramel sauce on a wooden table with blue napkins, spoons, and other jars

Whether a certain foodstuff is vegan or not, it’s still important to remember what’s good for us.

While it’s wonderful to enjoy versions of sweets without harming animals, the fact is, caramel is pure sugar. For this reason, it’s best to consume vegan caramel sparingly. For that matter, the same goes for any culinary creation that’s largely composed of sugar that doesn’t come from a natural food source like fruit.

You know what’s good for your health. Treat treats as treats.

Is caramel vegan? Answered!

To sum it up, caramel is, most plainly, sugar that’s been heated to various degrees (known as “caramelization”). Most companies and restaurants will add-in dairy to yield a creamy substance with a light brown color, which is what’s used in most dessert items and products on the market.

So, the best way to ensure that caramel is vegan is to make it yourself or try one of the products we’ve mentioned… and above all else, treat them as the rare treats that they are! If you have any further questions, please leave us a comment below!

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