Questions we should be asking: is sugar vegan?

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Not a silly question, the issue of whether or not sugar is vegan is easy to overlook, but for those striving to be as plant-based as possible, it’s an important one.

You’d be forgiven for indulging in an eye-roll when faced with the question: is sugar vegan? Before you dismiss it as a non-issue, there are some facts that you might not know yet and in a similar way to beer brewing, the problems with sugar all boil down to those pesky production processes, not the main ingredients.

Hate the process, not the product

cane sugarSugar is usually produced from sugarcane, sugar beets or coconuts. All natural and appropriate for a vegan diet, none of these pose any problems, but during the manufacturing process, colour is stripped from any and all of these sources, which is where animal products come in. And it’s not just in the case of refined white sugar.

Refined has a bad reputation for being the most unhealthy sweetener, but we might be overlooking the more sinister elements, such as the fact that it involves the use of bone char during its refining process. It is also a central ingredient in other types of sugar, so you need to know all the facts. Don’t assume that cane sugar is any different either, as this is simply a term that denotes the original source, not a subgenre of sweetener. Confusing!

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

sugar bone charYou might think that buying brown sugar or powdered options will get around the animal bone issue, but actually, they are just as contaminated.

Brown sugar

Looks and sounds healthier, therefore it must be more ethically made, right? Wrong. Brown sugar is made from refined white with added molasses for colour. It seems strange to reverse the decolourisation process — which is the central reason for sugar being filtered with bone char in the first place — but who are we to doubt the sweetener experts? Food production really is something of a dark art.

Powdered sugar

Also called confectioners’ sugar and icing, this is a substance mixed with cornstarch to create a lighter type of sugar, but guess what? It’s made from refined white, again. Icing sugar can also contain powdered egg wite, designed to give your cake frosting added sheen and hold. Buyer beware.

What are the safe alternatives?

We should point out here that most UK sugar manufacturers no longer use bone char and the issue is mostly confined to the US, though this is not by any means us telling you to buy whatever sugar you like.

Obviously, check the labels and if you’re unsure, contact the manufacturer directly for more information. That being said, there are some alternatives — not honey, obviously — to white refined sugar that you can buy and consume without having to worry.

Maple syrup

maple syrup vs agaveMaple syrup or agave are two of the most popular substitutions for refined sugar. They come from natural sources and aren’t processed in such a way to make them unsuitable for plant-based people.

They are also considered to be far healthier, and maple syrup is widely used in both savoury and sweet dishes. It is worth noting that strict raw vegans choose not to consume maple syrup, as it has to be heated to a temperature above their threshold while being manufactured.

Agave nectar

A light and delicate sweetener that comes from the cactus plant, agave is a popular choice for those looking for a low-calorie sweetener. It should be said that it offers little nutritional value, but at least it doesn’t compromise a healthy diet.

Agave is also easy to flavour and plenty of brands now have a range of taste profiles, including popular favourites such as vanilla and caramel.

Organic sugar

In order to be certified as organic, sugar needs to come from canes that haven’t been treated with harmful pesticides or fertilisers. It also can’t use certain chemicals and additives during the processing phase, including bone char. Organic sugar should always be vegan and can be the closest thing to traditional refined white products.

Raw sugar

Raw varieties, including turbinado sugar, are highly refined but relatively unprocessed. They are made from pure cane juice, fresh from the field and undergo just one crystallisation process. The molasses is not removed, so you get a richer flavour and a more earthy taste.

But shouldn’t we be eating less sugar anyway?

vegan sugarHere’s the rub. We can look for vegan-friendly sugars and natural alternatives but the fact remains that consuming too much sugary food is bad for us. We all know it and jokes about sweet-tooths aside, it’s something to take seriously with obesity rates consistently on the rise and with careful management, a vegan diet can actually help with blood sugar levels and Type 1 diabetes.

We all have that one vegan friend who can eat as many sweets as they like without ever putting on weight, but remember that plant-based or not, sugar is a treat, not an everyday nutrient. Now nooch on the other hand, well, you go right ahead and eat as much of that as you want.

Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and their beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor, before moving into her external content director role. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.