Is Caramel Vegan? The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Vegan Caramel

Caramel presents a sticky situation for vegans.

is caramel vegan with whisk illustration

Treehugger / Joshua Seong

Whether you pronounce it with two syllables or three, caramel is a sweet treat made from heated sugar. Unfortunately for vegans, most commercially available forms of caramel include non-vegan ingredients like milk that give caramel its creamy, rich texture.

Thankfully, vegans don’t have to give up caramel entirely. There are plenty of animal-product-free varieties as well as easy vegan DIY recipes.

Discover which types of caramel are suitable for vegans and the plant-based alternatives available in our vegan’s guide to caramel.

Why Most Caramel Is Not Vegan

In its simplest form, caramel is browned sugar. When heated to around 340 degrees F (170 degrees C), the sugar breaks down and becomes caramelized, meaning that the water has been removed from the sugar molecules. The sugar molecules then reform, creating a sweet, sticky, golden-colored liquid used in desserts worldwide. 

However, most commercially available forms of caramel contain much more than just heated sugar. Most caramels include vegan-friendly ingredients like vanilla extract and salt. Still, non-vegan ingredients like milk, cream, and butter give caramel its fat and protein content and provide caramel with its signature rich, velvety texture.

You can find dairy-based caramel in an assortment of forms, including candies, sauces, puddings, and baking chips. Butterscotch, too, is a type of non-vegan caramel made with brown sugar instead of granulated white sugar. It is most often made into a hard candy instead of a sauce or soft chew.

When Is Caramel Vegan?

Caramel traditionally comes in two forms that don’t contain animal products: clear caramel and caramel color. In both cases, the caramel contains only caramelized sugar and water.

Clear caramel—so named because the glossy brown liquid isn’t made cloudy by a dairy product—appears in desserts like flan and crème caramel. Caramel color—a dark, bittersweet, water-soluble food coloring—has been used in all kinds of food and beverages, especially in colas, for over 150 years. It does not contain dairy or other non-vegan ingredients.

Fortunately for vegans, a growing number of manufacturers offer vegan caramels, primarily using coconut milk and other non-animal ingredients that provide a taste and texture similar to conventional caramel. Vegan versions of desserts that include caramel, like pralines, crème brûlée, caramel apples, and ice cream, also use non-dairy milk and butter as substitutes.

It’s also easy to make vegan caramel at home. Slowly boil sugar, plant-based milk, butter, and vanilla extract until the mixture attains that gooey consistency you’re craving.

Vegan Alternatives to Caramel

A tray of various nut brittles made with caramel
Indulge in plant-based alternatives to traditional nut brittles.

Angelo D'Amico / Getty Images

As the vegan market continues to expand, so do the options for plant-based caramel. Whatever you’re humming for, these vegan caramel alternatives will hit the sweet spot.

AvenueSweets Dairy-Free Nut Brittle

AvenueSweets offers three varieties of nut brittle: cashew, peanut, and pecan. Made with organic coconut oil,  tapioca syrup, and organic vegan cane sugar, AvenueSweets also makes vegan caramel candies and a vegan sea salt caramel sauce. Beyond their vegan offerings, AvenueSweets also makes traditional, dairy-based caramels, brittles, and nougat.  Be sure to double-check that you’ve selected one of their plant-based options. 

Bloom Hand Crafted Coconut Milk Caramel Sauce

A 2019 Good Food Awards Winner, Bloom’s allergy- and animal-friendly caramel sauce comes in four unique varieties: vanilla, salted caramel, cardamom, and ancho chili. Bloom caramel sauces are made with coconut cream and cane sugar—never corn syrup.

Daffy Farms Wicked Dark Non-Dairy Caramel Syrup

This caramel apple company offers an award-winning dairy-free caramel syrup made from non-GMO cane sugar and tapioca. Daffy Farms stands out in the vegan caramel world as one of the few coconut-free vegan options.

King David Vegan Caramel Chips

Perfect for your vegan gorp, King David’s vegan caramel chips are non-dairy, lactose-free, and kosher certified. They’re made with sugar, palm oil, cocoa butter, and soy flour. King David also makes vegan butterscotch chips, which share similar ingredients but have a slightly different flavor.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is caramel made of?

    Simple caramel is browned sugar. Most commercially available caramels contain ingredients such as vanilla extract, salt, milk, butter, and cream.

  • Is caramel dairy-based?

    Unless otherwise labeled, caramel that you find in stores will most likely contain dairy. Check the labels and look for vegan caramel alternatives.

  • Is butterscotch vegan?

    Butterscotch, a type of caramel, is typically not vegan because it contains dairy.

  • Which caramels are vegan?

    While our list is not exhaustive, we recommend buying vegan caramel sweets from AvenueSweets, Bloom Caramel, King David, and Daffy Farms.