Is Sugar Vegan?

Sacks of granulated sugar

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If you're vegan, or, if you're looking for ways to minimize your use of products that contain or were processed using animal products, you might have heard that sugar isn't necessarily vegan. But what does this mean? And how is this even possible, since sugar is made from plants?

For vegans, the question of whether sugar is vegan is a complicated one. The answer comes down to the difference between cane sugar and beet sugar.

How Is Sugar Made?

Granulated sugar, sometimes called table sugar or white sugar (or merely "sugar"), is a substance whose chemical name is sucrose, a molecule made up of glucose and fructose. For many years, sugar was derived exclusively from sugar cane, a bamboo-like plant that is high in sucrose and is grown in tropical climates. Sugar derived from sugar cane is known as cane sugar.

In the mid-18th century, it was found that sugar could be produced from a type of beet, also high in sucrose, that came to be known as the sugar beet. Sugar beets were first cultivated in Europe, and by the end of the 19th century, half the world's sugar was made from sugar beets.

Today, global production is around 65 percent cane, 35 percent beet, but in the U.S., 55 to 60 percent of sugar is produced from sugar beets.

Whether from cane or from beets, sugar is essentially made the same way: the plant is chopped up and its juice is extracted. This juice is boiled to evaporate the water, and the resulting syrup is crystallized. Finally, the crystallized sugar is spun to remove the syrup (i.e. the molasses), and the remaining crystals are dried and packaged. 

Whether from cane or beet, the resulting sugar is sucrose and both taste the same (although some bakers find that cane and beet sugar behave differently in certain applications).

Is Sugar Vegan?

Which brings us to the question at hand: is sugar vegan? Obviously, sugar itself, whether from cane or beet, comes from a plant. So why is this even a question?  

It's because one step in the process of refining cane sugar involves passing it through a charcoal filter to remove impurities, essentially to whiten it. And this charcoal is sometimes made from something called bone char, which is literally the charred bones of animals, mostly cattle and pigs. 

Only cane sugar requires this step. And while the final product doesn't contain any bone char, it may have come in contact with it—may have, because some cane sugar is produced using a different kind of charcoal, although there is no way to know whether any given sugar was or wasn't. 

In any event, beet sugar doesn't require this step, since the basic refining process alone is enough to produce a white product. This means that beet sugar has not been processed using bone char.

What Does Vegan Mean?

For some, being vegan means not eating any food products that come from an animal, including meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. For others, it means not eating animal products, nor using animal-based products like leather, wool, and so on. Is honey vegan? It depends on who you ask. What about vegetables grown using animal manure, or worm castings?

The debate can go on endlessly, and there's no final answer for what constitutes being vegan. But perhaps the best way of describing it is in terms of an individual making choices, and aligning those choices with their ethics. 

After all, in the modern world, it's not possible to be 100 percent vegan in every aspect of our lives. If you drive a car, or live in a house, or own a cellphone, you're using products made from animals. 

And, some vegans might not care that cane sugar is processed using animal bones. As long as the sugar itself isn't derived from an animal, they'd consider it vegan. But for the vegans who do care, purchasing sugar made from sugar beets instead of cane sugar is an easy substitution to make, requiring nothing more than reading the label on the package.

Is Your Sugar From Cane or Beets?

The easiest way to tell whether your sugar is made from sugar cane is that it will say so right on the label: pure cane sugar. C&H and Domino sugar, the two major brands of granulated sugar in the U.S., are both made from sugar cane and say so on the package.

Store brands will often be made from sugar beets or a blend of beet and cane. Check the ingredients. If it says sugar from sugar beets, it's vegan. If it just says sugar, it might be from beets, and it might be a blend. 

Certain products, like some from Bob's Red Mill and Trader Joe's, for example, will specifically say beet sugar. Additionally, any sugar that says it is certified organic was NOT made using bone char, whether it's from beets or sugar cane.