Is Sugar Vegan? The Vegan’s Guide to Sugar

Sugar's dirty secret? Some of it is filtered with bone char. Here's how to tell.

Four wooden spoons with varieties of sugar

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Sugar comes primarily from sugarcane and sugar beets. This plant-based definition satisfies some vegans who follow a more “possible and practical” approach to the lifestyle. But for others, deciding whether their sweet tooth indulgence is actually animal-product free isn’t that simple. 

That’s because cane sugar, one of the most common forms of sugar, is typically refined using animal bone char, a by-product of the meat industry. Unfortunately for vegans, the ingredient list alone may be insufficient to determine how any particular sugar was refined.

But fear not—it’s easier to find vegan sugar than you might think. We’ll help you shop for vegan sugar in the baking aisle and decipher the sugars labeled on processed foods.

What Is Sugar?

According to the FDA, sugar is sucrose obtained from sugarcane and sugar beets. A disaccharide sugar comprised of glucose and fructose, sucrose occurs naturally in all plants. Because sugarcane and sugar beets have more sucrose than any other fruit, vegetable, or nut, these two plants dominate the global sugar market. 

Sugar beets account for around 60% of U.S. sugar production, while the remaining 40% comes from sugarcane. Globally speaking, though, sugarcane holds the title of number one crop by harvested tonnage. Sugarcane grows in more than 90 countries (primarily Brazil and India) and provides 80% of the global sugar supply.

Most people cannot distinguish between cane and beet sugar by taste or smell. But participants from one study described beet sugar as earthy with tones of barnyard and burnt sugar, while calling cane sugar fruity and sweet. Luckily, it's easy to find vegan varieties of both.

Processing of Sugar

Conveyor belt with sugar beets at a sugar mill
Sugar beets become sugar in a single process, making beet sugar vegan-friendly.

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Sugar beets become sugar in a single process at a single facility. The beets are sliced and diffused to extract the raw juice, then purified into a syrup called beet molasses. (Beet molasses most commonly becomes feedstock, not food for human consumption). As the molasses boils, the sucrose crystallizes. The liquid is placed in a centrifuge where the sugar is separated from the liquid. 

Sugarcane processing is similar to a point. The cane stalks, ripe and heavy with sucrose, are sent to a sugar mill where they are shredded and pressed to harvest sugarcane molasses, a dark, viscous sweetener. The molasses is boiled to concentrate the liquid and encourage crystallization. A spin in a centrifuge detaches the large sucrose crystals from the molasses, producing raw cane sugar. 

Any cane sugar not left in its more natural form is transported to a refinery, where it’s usually filtered with a form of activated charcoal made from the bones of slaughtered cows and pigs. This process whitens the crystals by further removing molasses and other impurities. For this reason, devout vegans avoid most forms of refined white cane sugar.

Thanks to modern alternatives, cane sugar can also be refined using cruelty-free ion-exchange resins and plant-based activated carbon, allowing vegans to enjoy refined sugar without compromising their values.

Did You Know?

For every ton of sugarcane crushed for their sweet juices, 300 pounds of a fibrous, pulpy material called bagasse remains. Bagasse can be transformed into biochar, plant-based charcoal that removes carbon dioxide from the air. When used on sugarcane fields as fertilizer, biochar can improve soil quality, growth, and even annual yield. Bagasse alternatively can also be used as biofuel or in the creation of paper and construction materials.

Types of Sugar

The USDA generally recognizes three types of sugar (white, brown, and other), but sugars from sources other than sugarcane or sugar beets, including naturally occurring and added sugars, often appear on food labels as part of the total sugars.

White Sugar

A teaspoon of white sugar on a pile of white sugar
Most refined white sugars are not vegan-friendly.

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When consumers think of sugar, they imagine white sugar. White sugar can be made from beets, sugarcane, or a mixture of both. The majority of these sugars are likely not vegan.

  • Granulated Sugar: The most common type of sugar, granulated sugar comes in various grains from coarse to extra-fine. Also called regular or table sugar, it can also be sold in cubes.
  • Superfine Sugar: Known also as caster or bakers’ sugar, these tiny crystals of granulated sugar often appear in desserts and on drink rims. This is also often the sugar used to create simple syrup.
  • Powdered Sugar: Powdered sugar is made with equal parts finely ground granulated sugar and cornstarch and is also called confectioners’ sugar.

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar isolated on white background
Vegans can indulge with raw cane sugar.

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Brown sugars come in two varieties, vegan-friendly raw cane sugars (which inherit their brownish tint from their intrinsic molasses) and non-vegan commercially processed brown sugars (which borrow their color from sugarcane molasses added to refined cane and beet sugar). 

  • Light and Dark Brown Sugars: As the name suggests, light brown sugar has more added molasses than light brown sugar.
  • Evaporated Cane Juice: Evaporated cane juice is identical to raw cane sugar and gets its caramel color from the small amounts of remaining molasses.
  • Turbinado: Known also as raw cane sugar or demerara sugar, turbinado is an unrefined sugar that retains some of its naturally occurring molasses.
  • Muscovado: The sticky, sandy texture of this unrefined sugar leaves more molasses intact.
  • Jaggery: A mix of unrefined cane sugar and usually palm or date sugar, jaggery is popular in Africa and Asia.
  • Piloncillo: Sometimes called panela or Mexican brown sugar, this solid, raw form of pure cane sugar is popular in Central and Latin America.

Other Sugar Not Made from Sugarcane or Sugar Beets

Maple syrup being poured on ice at a sugar shack
Maple syrup makes a great vegan alternative to refined cane sugar.

Sugar can come from a variety of vegan sources, including fruits (fructose), vegetables (glucose), and grains (maltose), as well as non-vegan dairy (lactose) and honey (glucose). 

  • Fruit Sugar: Common in processed foods, the bigger sucrose crystals of granulated fruit sugar stay suspended in dry mixes instead of sinking to the bottom.
  • Corn Syrup: Sometimes written as HFCS or high-fructose corn syrup, this liquid sucrose dominates the market in processed foods like cookies and soda.
  • Barley Malt Syrup: Grain-derived barley malt syrup is around 50% less sweet than white sugar.
  • Brown Rice Syrup: Another grain-derived sugar, brown rice syrup has a milder taste.
  • Maple Syrup: This thick liquid comes from refining the sap of sugar maple trees.
  • Honey: Honey comes from bees. It is a regurgitated mix of nectar and enzymes inside the bees’ stomachs, stored in honey’s co-product, beeswax.
  • Agave: High in fructose, agave comes from a succulent native to Mexico. When fermented, agave becomes tequila.

Treehugger Tip

Avoid foods that list "sugar" as an ingredient. If a food label does not distinguish whether it is cane or beet sugar, the product may contain a blend of beet and cane sugars, part of which was probably refined using animal products. This is especially true in processed foods.

When Sugar Is Vegan

Raw sugar beet on wooden table, beta vulgaris with granulated and cube sugar
Beet sugar is always vegan-friendly.

ollo / Getty Images

If you're looking for vegan-friendly white sugar, you have two options: Beet sugar or USDA-certified organic sugar. Because sugar beets don't go through a refining process, 100% beet sugar brands are always vegan. According to federal law, any activated charcoal used in processing organic foods must be plant-sourced, making all organic sugar—including white refined cane sugar—100% clear of animal products.

Vegans can also safely consume raw or unrefined brown sugars made from sugarcane because they have not been in contact with animal products. 

Sugar can also be vegan if it comes from fruits and vegetables besides sugarcane and sugar beets. These can include popular products like coconut and date sugar.

When Sugar Is Not Vegan

It’s reasonable to assume that any white sugar not expressly labeled vegan or organic could have, at least in part, been processed with animal products. This holds for table sugar as well as the sugar in pre-made foods.

Likewise, vegans may also want to steer clear of processed brown sugars because the refined cane sugar base sugar was likely refined with bone char.

Vegan Sugar Products

Granulated brown sugar on coconut shell bowl
Coconut sugar offers vegans another source of granulated sugar.

by Alfian Widiantono / Getty Images

Grocery stores and specialty shops alike offer vegans an array of sugars made from many different types of plants.

Anthony’s Belgian Pearl Sugar

Made of 100% beet sugar, these bigger chunks of sugar don’t melt as easily as other sugars. Pearl sugar give Belgian Liège waffles their signature crunch and flavor. 

Date Lady Granular Date Sugar

Lightly sweet, this organic vegan sugar retains fiber from the dates. While date sugar is perfect for topping foods, it doesn’t dissolve well in water. To use it in baked goods, you’ll need to reduce your flour by 25%.

Nutiva Nurture Vitality Superfood Unrefined Coconut Sugar

Made from the coconut tree sap of freshly cut flower buds, this organic coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than cane sugar. Subtly sweet, it works great in everything from coffee to cookies.

Purecane

Purecane is a zero-calorie vegan sweetener made from fermented sugarcane and erythritol. It comes in several varieties to fit all your culinary needs and—major bonus—uses ten times less land than other sweeteners. 

Sugar In The Raw White Organic Sugar

The organic and vegan labels on this cane sugar guarantee it has never mingled with animal products. Sugar in the Raw is also EcoSocial, a certification awarded to organic sugar companies that integrate economic, social, and environmental criteria.

Wholesome Organic Sugar Dark Brown

Get all the molasses goodness of dark brown sugar without worrying about contamination by animal products. This finely ground, moist, and soft organic sugar replaces conventional brown sugar at a one-to-one ratio. 

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can vegans eat sugar?

    Yes, but not all vegans eat all sugars. Most vegans consider sugar a generally acceptable food, but strict vegans abstain from refined cane sugars that are likely to have been processed with animal products. They can, however, consume vegan-friendly raw cane sugar, certified-organic cane sugar, and sugar made exclusively from beets.

  • How do I know if my sugar is vegan?

    If your sugar is certified organic or labeled beet sugar or vegan, you can rest assured no animals were harmed in the satisfying of your sugar craving.

  • Which white sugar is vegan?

    Beet sugar and certified organic sugar are both white sugars, and neither are exposed to animal products during processing.

  • Is bone char in sugar?

    Bone char is often used to whiten the crystals of refined cane sugar. Although no animal products remain in the final yield, some vegans still object to the practice and reject any sugar that may have been filtered in this way.