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Cupcakes, ice cream, and apple pie, oh my! All of these delicacies that make life a little sweeter wouldn’t be the same without sugar. While this natural sweetener isn’t exactly a necessary addition to any diet, most people couldn’t imagine life without it — nor would they think to ask “is sugar vegan?”

However, just because sugar is derived from plants doesn’t mean that it’s always vegan. We’re going to figure out exactly which types and brands of sugar are vegan-friendly, and which aren’t. All you have to do is keep reading.

How is sugar made?

cut sugar cane on bamboo matting

All natural forms of sugar come from plants, because sugar is essentially plant food. When plants photosynthesize — using sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to create food — the end result is glucose or fructose. These simple sugars readily provide the plant with all the energy it needs to grow and thrive.

The process of extracting sugar from plants and turning it into the fine crystals we’re all familiar with varies slightly depending on the type of plant. We’ll use sugarcane as our main example since it’s one of the most commonly used sources of sugar.

Cane sugar is made by crushing sugarcane with a series of rollers while water is simultaneously passed through the rollers, creating a sugar “juice.” This raw sugar juice is treated with lime to remove unwanted particles of plant matter. After it’s been treated, the mixture is boiled and reduced to remove excess water and increase the concentration of sucrose.

Finally, the syrupy juice is passed through a series of vacuum pans to remove the remaining liquid and, ta-da, sugar is formed! Okay, it’s actually a little more complicated than that, but there’s a whole lot of technical, scientific jargon involved in producing sugar, so I figured I’d save you a headache and keep it simple.

You can read about the process in detail here or check out the video below, if you fancy yourself more of a visual learner.

Why is sugar not vegan?

Sugar in its most natural form is vegan. It is essentially just plant food, after all. However, sugar derived from sugarcane usually goes through a refining process to make it sparkling white, because that’s what consumers tend to find most appealing. This refinement requires bone char, which, as you may have guessed, is not vegan. So, what is bone char?

Bone char is more or less what it sounds like — bones, usually from cattle, that have been burned at a very high temperature, reducing them to a black, porous material. Raw cane sugar is coarse and slightly brown in color due to naturally occurring molasses. When it’s filtered through this blackened substance, the molasses is removed and the crystals become smaller and more uniform in shape, resulting in the fine, pure white sugar crystals we all recognize.

While bone char is not the only method used to refine sugar, it is used fairly common in the production of cane sugar. That is why, as a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid refined cane sugar, as it is usually not vegan-friendly.

Is granulated sugar vegan?

various types of sugar forms laid out on a table

Granulated sugar is any type of sugar that has kept its crystalline form and may come from sugarcane, sugar beets, or any other number of sources. The most common types of granulated sugars and their vegan status are broken down in the following sections:

Is white sugar vegan? Is cane sugar vegan?

Short answer: No.

 

Most white sugar is refined sugar from the sugarcane plant, which, as we know by now, is usually refined using bone char.

 

Is raw sugar vegan?

Short answer: Yes.

 

Because raw sugar is just that — raw — you don’t have to worry about it being refined with bone char, so it’s pretty much always vegan.

 

Is organic sugar vegan?

Short answer: Yes.

 

Bone char is not on the approved list of non-synthetic substances that can be used on organic crops, meaning that it can’t be used to filter organic sugar. If your sugar is certified organic by the USDA, it’s bone char-free!

 

Is brown sugar vegan?

Short answer: Usually not.

 

Brown sugar is simply refined, white cane sugar that has had some molasses added back to it. Organic, vegan brown sugar is hard to come by, but it does exist! In fact, you can find some here, or try an alternative such as date sugar, which adds antioxidants and minerals to any recipe.

 

Is beet sugar vegan?

Short answer: Yes.

 

Beet sugar is never refined with bone char, making it suitable for vegans.

 

Is coconut sugar vegan?

Short answer: Yes.

 

Coconut sugar generally comes straight from the coconut with no refinement, making it vegan-friendly. Try Terrasoul Superfoods Organic Coconut Sugar for a much tastier way to sweeten your treats.

 

Is powdered sugar vegan? Is confectioner’s sugar vegan?

Short answer: Sometimes.

 

Powdered sugar, also known as confectioner’s sugar, may be sold raw or unrefined. The common brands you’ll see, such as C&H, are generally made from refined white sugar and are not vegan, but vegan brands of powdered sugar, such as Wholesome do exist.

 

Alternatively, you could make your own vegan powdered sugar from your favorite raw sugar. All you have to do is blend it in a blender or food processor until it achieves the fine, powdery texture that gives powdered sugar its name.

Bone-free sugars for the vegan baker

Fortunately for us dessert-loving vegans, there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to finding bone char-free sugar. Many popular and readily available brands, such as In the Raw, Bob’s Red Mill, Simple Truth, and Simply Balanced offer organic and raw sugars that are vegan-friendly. For a more complete list of vegan sugar brands, you can check out peta2’s handy guide to vegan sugar.

Once you’ve stocked up on bone-free sugar, you can put it to the test by whipping up a batch of delicious vegan cookies, a decadent cake, or whatever else your sweet tooth craves.

Should I buy fair trade sugar?

fair trade symbol

Just because a product isn’t derived from animals doesn’t mean that it can’t be ethically problematic. Coffee, tea, and chocolate are a few examples of plant-based foods that may include unethical labor practices and even slavery in their production — and sugar can be added to this list.

The US Department of Labor (DOL) revealed the bitter side of sugar when they uncovered evidence of ongoing human rights abuses such as child labor and wage theft within the sugarcane industry, particularly in the Dominican Republic and Central America. The DOL is working to address these issues, but in the meantime, you can limit your contribution to these unethical practices by opting for fair trade sugar as often as possible, or buying sugar that was grown in the US.

Is sugar vegan? It can be!

different types of sugar on a table with spoon

When we think of sugar, we tend to think of it in its pure, white form with perfectly uniform crystals. This refined, white sugar is usually not vegan because it’s refined with the charred bones of slaughtered cattle.

However, there are plenty of other types of sugar, including raw and organic varieties, that are never refined with bone char, so you can sweeten your favorite treats and drinks with a clear conscience. Just be sure to do so in moderation, please 😊

What type of sugar do you prefer to keep in your pantry? Let me know down below!

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