Animal products are often hidden in many of the processed foods that we eat. Even if the ingredients label doesn’t list an animal product, it doesn’t mean that no animal products were used during the production process. Different processing methods use animal products, such as beer and wine, which may use egg or fish bladder to aid in filtration. But there’s another common ingredient that most people consume every day that may not be as vegan-friendly as you’d expect: sugar.
While some sugars are vegan, many processed sugars are not. And with sugar present in so many processed foods, it’s essential that we understand where these sugars are coming from, so we can make educated decisions about whether or not we want to consume them.
There are two primary sources of sucrose (aka sugar): sugar cane and sugar beet. Regardless of which plant the sugar is extracted from, the product is both functionally and chemically the same. It even has the same number of calories.
Sugarcane is native to the hot, tropical climates of countries like Brazil, South Africa, West Indies and Southeast Asia. But that’s not the only place where it’s grown today. Sugarcane is commercially grown in the United States, but it’s harder to grow because it’s so climate sensitive. On top of that, the growing season can take up to 8 months. Still, sugarcane is used for about 80% of the world’s sugar supply.
In North America, sugar beet is more commonly used for processed sugar, with about 50-60% of the supply coming from this root vegetable. Sugar beet is easy to grow and is adaptable to multiple climates. That means they can be grown in the United States, Germany, Russia, Turkey, France and Canada. One thing to note is that approximately 98% of sugar beet grown in North America is genetically modified, whereas sugarcane is never GMO.
So, with both sugarcane and sugar beet being plant products, why isn’t sugar always vegan? The process of extracting and refining sugar from sugarcane and sugar beet differs.
Sugar production from sugar beets is relatively straightforward and all done in one facility. The beets are thinly sliced, and the juice is extracted and condensed into beet molasses. The molasses is then boiled, which causes the sugar to crystalize. And essentially, that’s it. So the sugar is entirely vegan.
Processing sugarcane is slightly different. The sucrase is located in the stalk of the sugarcane plant, so it needs to be shredded finely in a mill and then pressed, releasing thick and dark-coloured molasses. The molasses is then boiled, similar to the process with sugar beet, which crystalizes the sugar. And that is how raw cane sugar is produced. But the process doesn’t stop there. Most of the sugar is then refined and filtered using activated charcoal to bleach the sugar crystals into the bright white sugar colour we are familiar with. This charcoal is usually bone char, made from the burned bones of cows and pigs. Although the bone char doesn’t make it into the sugar itself, the fact that it is used as part of the process makes it not vegan. The only purpose of this is aesthetic and is not necessary for the taste of the sugar.
Some refined cane sugar brands process their sugar using activated carbon made from plant-based ingredients, but it’s much harder to find.
It can be challenging to determine if sugar is vegan or not, and the best option is to avoid processed foods that simply list ‘sugar’ in the ingredients list. That said, there are a few tricks you can use to determine whether it might be vegan.
Companies are not required to disclose if the sugar used in their products is filtered using bone char or not, but it’s likely that if they use plant-based activated carbon, they will probably specify it on the label. This could be in the form of a ‘V’ vegan logo, or, if you’re located in North America, the sugar could be listed as USDA-certified organic sugar. The law dictates that USDA-certified organic sugar must be filtered through plant-based methods.
Any sugar that comes from sugar beets is always vegan since no refining process is necessary. Additionally, if the sugar is unrefined or raw, it’s not gone through the bleaching process and, therefore, will be vegan. Don’t be fooled by brown sugar though, as that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unrefined. Many brown sugars are processed the same as white sugars and then re-coloured using molasses to make it brown again. And what about powdered sugar? Powdered sugar is a mix of cornstarch and granulated sugar, so it won’t always be vegan.
In Canada, there are two main sugar companies. Rogers/Lantic uses sugar beets to make their sugars, while Redpath is made with sugarcane.
It can be complicated to determine if the sugar you are purchasing is vegan. If you don’t want to research every single brand of sugar you buy, there are tons of sweeteners that are always vegan. They work just as well in your favourite vegan baking recipes, hot drinks, cocktails, and other meals! Some of our vegan sweeteners include:
Ideally, we would recommend using more natural sweeteners like maple syrup, agave and coconut sugar when you can swing it, and also trying to reduce your intake overall. That said, there’s no harm in enjoying natural sugar in moderation, especially in delicious baked goods!
Many companies are shifting to plant-based activated carbon and ion-exchange systems to refine and filter their sugar. With these new modern options available, there isn’t any real reason to continue using bone char in the refining process. But in the meantime, you now know what to look out for and how to avoid non-vegan sugar as much as possible.