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?
According to an article by Fine Cooking, caramel is sugar that’s been cooked until it browns, or ‘caramelizes.’ (1)
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 true 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. (2)
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. (3)
So, can we call caramel vegan?
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 there’s a great article by PETA that serves as a “how-to” guide for navigating their menu. They actually do have many vegan accommodations! (4)
Vegan caramel alternatives
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.
View the full Cocomels Coconut Milk Caramels range.
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
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!
Bloom Vanilla Coconut Caramel Sauce
The ingredient list of this vanilla coconut caramel sauce is reassuringly short.
Comprising of just coconut milk with organic cane sugar, Oregon sea salt, double fold vanilla, sunflower lecithin, and citric acid, this pour is a score!
AvenueSweets – Handcrafted Soft Caramels
These beautifully presented soft caramels make the perfect gift…if you can bear to give them away, that is.
Flavors available are: Sea salt, chocolate sea salt, and golden vanilla. Can’t choose? Well, they have a trio variety pack just for you that includes all three. Win!
Shop the AvenueSweets range here.
Mr. Dewie’s Organic Vegan Caramel Sauce
Another sauce for you now. This time it’s the turn of Mr Dewie…and what a sauce he has!
Despite being made with just organic coconut cream, organic coconut palm sugar, organic tapioca syrup, and kosher salt, this caramel sauce is incredibly deep in flavor.
Stroop Club Authentic Vegan Stroopwafel with Dutch Caramel
Something a little different to finish up: A Stroop Club Authentic Vegan Stroopwafel with Dutch Caramel.
These vegan “waffles” have a deliciously gooey caramel center and hints of cinnamon flowing through every bite. If you like a bit of crunch with your sweet and sticky, these simply must go in your basket.
A healthful reminder
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 pretty much 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. (5)
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!
About The Author:
Carly Keyes is writer and personal trainer who decided to go plant-based after a visit to the True North Health Center in Santa Rosa, CA. The change has completely revolutionized the way she feels, looks, thinks and behaves, making her a very vocal advocate of the vegan lifestyle.
She’s also a keen singer/songwriter and has studied screenwriting at the University of Michigan. Carly lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI.
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- Fine Cooking Editors | The Science of Caramel | https://www.finecooking.com/article/the-science-of-caramel
- FALCPA | Food Allergen Labeling And Consumer Protection Act of 2004 Questions and Answers | https://www.fda.gov/food/food-allergensgluten-free-guidance-documents-regulatory-information/food-allergen-labeling-and-consumer-protection-act-2004-questions-and-answers#q1
- Alisa Fleming | Does the Ingredient Caramel Color Contain Milk? | https://www.godairyfree.org/ask-alisa/ask-alisa-does-the-ingredient-caramel-color-contain-milk
- Nina | Order Vegan Starbucks Like a Pro | https://www.peta2.com/vegan-life/surprisingly-vegan-starbucks/
- Honor Whiteman | Sugar: should we eliminate it from our diet? | https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/288088