Is All Sugar Vegan?

Some Vegans Say "No" Due to Sugar's Filtration Process

Tea spoon of sugar
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If you are a vegan then you avoid eating or using products made from animals. It's obvious that meatfishmilk, and eggs are not vegan, but what about sugar? Believe it or not, sugar, while a completely plant-derived product, might actually be a gray area for some vegans. Some sugar refineries use "bone char," technically, charred animal bones as part of the filtration process to get white sugar so white.

Take a look at the different types of sugars, and find out which use bone char and which do not.

Making Sugar

Sugar can be made either from sugar cane or from sugar beets. Both are sold in the United States as "sugar," "white sugar" or "granulated sugar." Both are the same molecule—sucrose, however, both are not processed the same way.

Beet sugar is not filtered with bone char. It is processed in a single step at a single facility. 

The prevailing belief is that there is no difference between cane sugar and beet sugar, although some professionals and foodies have noticed differences in taste and texture due to differences in the trace minerals and proteins.

So, if you must have sugar processed from sugar cane, then your chances increase that your sugar will be filtered using bone char.

When making sugar from sugar cane, the sugar cane is harvested and cane juice is extracted. Then dirt and other solids are removed from the cane juice and the juice is boiled and evaporated to turn it into a syrup. The syrup is crystallized to make raw sugar, which is brown in color. The raw sugar is sent to another facility to be filtered to become white sugar and the remaining liquid is turned into molasses. It is the step at the second facility where bone char may be used. 

How Is Bone Char Made

Bone char is "prepared by almost incinerating animal bones to leave activated carbon—a bit like making wood charcoal," according to Sugar Knowledge International (SKIL), which describes itself as the "world's leading independent sugar technology organization." The bones come from animals that have been slaughtered for meat.

Even if a bone char filter is used, the final sugar product has no bones in it. It is just a filter, which is used over and over again. Since there are no bones in the sugar, some vegans consider refined sugar to be vegan, even if bone char is used in the production. Also, sugar produced in this way can also be certified kosher.

Why Some Vegans Object

Because most vegans try to minimize animal use and suffering, bone char is a problem because it is an animal product. Even if bone char is a by-product of the meat industry, supporting the by-product supports the industry as a whole. Many vegans also find the thought of their food being filtered through animal bones to be disgusting.

Does Brown Sugar Use Bone Char?

Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added back in. Buying brown sugar is not a guarantee of avoiding bone char filtration. However, if you are using unrefined brown sugar, like piloncillo, rapadura, panela, or jaggery, then your sugar source did not use bone char.

Does Organic Sugar Use Bone Char?

Organic sugar is not filtered with bone char. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "Sections 205.605 and 205.606 of the USDA organic regulations identify the non-organic ingredients and processing aids that are allowed in the handling of organic products. Bone char is not listed... its use is not permitted in the processing of certified organic products."

Good News for Vegans

Bone char filtration is becoming less common in the U.S. Beet sugar now makes up the majority of sugar consumed in the U.S. and it is gaining market share because it is less expensive to produce. Sugar beets grow in more temperate climates while sugar cane needs a hot climate that is not as common in the U.S. 

In addition, some refineries are switching to other types of filtration. According to SKIL, "Modern technology has largely replaced bone char decolorization but it is still used in a few refineries." 

How to Avoid Bone Char

To find out if your products contain bone char sugar, you can call the company and ask whether they use bone char sugar. Although, the answer might change from day to day because some companies buy their sugar from multiple suppliers. The best way to avoid bone char is to use sugars that are known to be produced without bone char:

  • organic sugar
  • beet sugar
  • less refined sugars like demerara sugar or turbinado sugar (e.g. Sugar in the Raw, Florida Crystals, Sucanat)
  • unrefined brown sugar