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.
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.
How is bone char made?
Bone char is produced by charring animal bones, which involves heating them to very high temperatures and reducing them to carbon through a dehydration process. The bones may often be those from cows (often pelvises) and other livestock which will have been slaughtered in the food industry.
The Vegetarian Resource Group estimated that it takes around 7,800 cows to create a single commercial bone char filter, which are used by the dozen in large sugar manufacturing plants. Many vegans are concerned not only by animal bone products being used to produce their sugar, but also by the fact that much of the bone char is produced abroad and then sold back to the US and other western countries. Some foreign countries - places such as Argentina and Pakistan - have far less stringent laws governing the keeping and slaughtering of livestock for food, and it is likely that the cattle used in creating the bone char may not have been treated well.
Even though the bone char is a by product of slaughter for food, many people do not want to support this industry by making their waste products profitable for them.
For lots of vegans and non vegans, it is concerning that bone char is imported and used in sugar production when, due to health concerns, the FDA has banned the use of bones from the US meat industry. There is a requirement that the imported bones come from animals which die of natural causes, but of course there is no way to really monitor or enforce this. Even if you aren't a vegan, this is a good reason to be concerned about bone char and to take a better look at where your sugar has come from in the supermarket.
Many byproducts from these animals also end up in the fertilizers used to grow sugar cane and sugar beets (along with many other food products) in the US, which is something worth being aware of if you are a very strict vegan.
So is the solution for vegans to just use beet sugar? If only the solution to non vegan sugar was so simple. The two sugars function quite differently in cooking and baking, meaning that alternative recipes are required and many traditional recipes just don't come out quite right with beet sugar, with some chefs claiming they come out coarse.
The other difficult part of this is that you have no control over which type of sugar is used in premade foods. There is good news, however, as due to the cheaper production of beet sugar there has been a shift in recent years towards wider use of sugar beets, moving away from sugar canes. This means that hopefully more sugars in products we buy will be coming from beet rather than cane sugar. There are, however, some concerns amount the use of GMOs in beet sugar, particularly those produced in the US so this adds further complications!
What are the vegan options for sugar production?
Thankfully, there are now many modern alternatives to bone char when filtering cane sugar, including granular carbon, activated carbon and ion-exchange resins. All of these alternative filters would produce vegan sugar, and actually create sugars which are indistinguishable in taste and appearance from those produced with bone char. The difficulty is, because of this, sugar manufacturers very rarely bother to include information on the packaging about how the sugar was refined in the first place. To be completely certain, you may have to get in touch with the manufacturers or else find another brand that is reliably vegan. A quick google should also provide information about which sugars are vegan friendly, but I've also included some recommendations below.
Which sugars are vegan?
There are plenty of vegan sugars available to buy on the market and a good tip to follow if you're unsure about how your sugar was made is to look for the words organic, unrefined, natural or raw anywhere on the product. Aim for these organic sugar products which are not pure whiten colour because they will not have used bone char. By law, the US Department of Agriculture states that sugar labelled as organic cannot be filtered using bone char - so anything organic should be safe for vegans to use.
In the US, the best vegan sugars are manufactured by well known brands such as Wholesome!, In The Raw, Florida Crystals and Imperial Sugar. There are lots of organic, vegan options but Wholesome! brand products are also GMO-free and fair trade, which are also important to many people. Wholesome! also produce powered sugars and brown sugars that are completely vegan friendly as well.
Vegan sugar alternatives
The other option many vegans are turning to are using other natural sweeteners instead of sugar, as there are many health benefits to removing sugar from your diet. There are a whole host of products that do the trick here such as agave nectar, brown rice syrups, date syrups, maple syrups, molasses and bee-free honeys which are usually made from apples.
If you're concerned about limiting natural sugars and keeping down their glycemic index, sweeteners such as stevia are natural, plant based and can work just as well! Many people prefer using these natural sweeteners to sugar for various reasons, ranging from weight loss to controlling diabetes or other long term health conditions.
The bottom line
So to sum up, be careful when buying sugar and when buying products that contain sugar if you are worried about the use of bone char in the sugar production process.
There are a lot of non vegan sugars out there, but this is one product that there are already fantastic vegan equivalents for which are produced without the use of bone char.
As people become more and more aware of the use of bone char in sugar production, vegans and non vegans alike are pressuring manufacturers to switch their filters to one of the animal friendly alternatives. This change isn't quite here yet, so for now the best thing you can do is to be an informed consumer and make sure your sugar is coming from somewhere that you're happy with.
Alternatively, you could consider removing sugar from your diet, as excessive consumption of any type of sugar can cause addiction and a whole host of health and lifestyle issues. You can sign up to my 21 Day Sugar Detox program here.