Is Sugar Vegan?

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

Some sugars are absolutely fine as part of a vegan diet, and others are not - it all comes down to how the sugar product was made.

Avoiding animal products can be really tricky as a vegan, but it's something that many vegans need to become somewhat of an expert in doing. Many common, everyday foods appear innocent at first glance, but upon closer inspection can be found to contain traces of dairy, egg or some other animal derivative.

Sugar is something that usually we wouldn't think twice about, but recently many vegans have become concerned about the use of animal products in the production of sugar products.

Sugar comes from plants, right? Yes it does, but there is a hidden danger for vegans when consuming sugar - something you might have never heard of called bone char. This is widely used throughout the sugar industry as a way to whiten sugar and is used in the productions of white sugar, brown sugar and various types of confectioner's sugar.

a handful of colours sugar sprinkles

So can vegans eat sugar?

Let's get some definitions out the way first. We are talking about what's know as refined sugar, which is the typical granulated stuff that you would use at home in baking and in your coffee. White, brown and confectioner's sugar all count as refined, as that simply means it has been processed in some way.

Raw sugar products in comparison tend to be unprocessed and a more natural brown color as they still have a high molasses content. All these different sugars start of life as one of the two main plant based sources: sugar beets and sugar canes.

Any sugar that originally comes from sugar beets can be safely considered vegan as the refining process works very differently and does not require any bone char. Cane sugar, on the other hand, is quite commonly processed with bone char which means that it's quite normal to find non-vegan sugars that have been processed from sugar canes. To understand why these sugars aren't vegan, we need to understand what bone char is and how it is used in the sugar refining process.

What is bone char?

Bone char, which is sometimes referred to as "natural carbon", gets used as a filter by the sugar industry as mentioned above. The cane sugar is crushed to create a juice, which is then filtered through bone char, resulting in sugar from sugar canes achieving the classic pure white color we associate with sugar.

It is also removes impurities from the sugar, including sulfates and various ions such as magnesium and calcium which simplifies the rest of the sugar production process.

While bone char is primarily used during the production of white sugar, this white sugar is then used as the basis of other sugars (e.g. adding molasses gives brown sugar) meaning that these sugars can also be indirectly filtered by bone char. So while none of these products actually contain bones or bone char, they do come into contact with it and it plays a central role in the processing, which means that many vegans would not eat it.