You would be forgiven for thinking that sugar must be vegan, now wouldn’t you? I mean it comes from a plant after all. So is it true that sugar is processed with bone char?
Unfortunately, yes. Sometimes.
But sugar comes mainly from the sugarcane plant or from sugar beets.
Is it, in fact vegan?
Well, believe it or not, a lot of processed sugar, is refined using a process that involves bone char.
Oh dear, yet another product to be wary of?
Don’t despair, there are some solutions available to you.
And in this post we’ll break it down so you know exactly how to keep your sweet tooth vegan.
Table of Contents
How do I Know if My Sugar is Vegan?
- Contact the manufacturer to ask how the sugar is processed.
- Buy sugar that’s labelled ‘vegan’.
- Choose organic sugar (as this won’t be filtered through bone char).
- Beet sugar isn’t filtered through bone char.
- Raw sugar won’t be filtered through bone char.
- Unrefined sugar is free from bone char.
- Despite being free from bone char, there are other doubts surrounding the production of sugar. Read on for more information.
What Is Bone Char and Why is it Used in Sugar Production?
Bone char is created by heating up bones to very high temperatures in oxigen-controlled environments until they become carbonised.
The carbonised bone char is then sold to sugar companies around the worlds and used in a filtration process to de-colourise cane sugar and give it the bright whiteness you’ve come to expect from sugar.
According to this article on Green Queen, bone char is made from the bones of cows mainly from Afghanistan, Argentina, India, and Pakistan.
Bone char is also called natural carbon.
Well that sounds like an innocent ingredient, doesn’t it?
You could imagine anything nice from reading that.
Except burnt bones that is.
Also according to Green Queen, and quoted from a Maryland-based nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group, it takes 7800 cows to produce enough bone char for one commercial sugar filter.
Wow that’s a lot of bones.
Who would have thought that the white pureness of sugar doesn’t belong to natural sugar at all, but is thanks to yet another commercial system to make it more enticing to the consumer?
But Brown Sugar is Free From Bone Char Filtration, Right?
You might think that brown sugar must be safe, as it isn’t white anyway.
But you’d be mistaken.
Brown sugar, before it’s brown, starts out as any processed sugar and is bleached and filtered just the same to make pure white sugar, then it’s treated with molasses to give it back some brown colour.
So forget thinking that brown sugar is more natural than white.
Adios, healthy image of brown sugar.
Can I Tell if My Sugar Has Been Processed with Bone Char?
Unfortunately it isn’t possible to tell from the sugar whether bone char was used in the filtration process and there are no legal requirements to declare it.
Therefore, the safest way, if you want to use refined cane sugar, is to contact the company directly and ask whether bone char is used by their processing plant.
In Europe the sale of bone char is heavily regulated and the bones must come from animals which are certified free from BSE. The result of this is that there are more sugar companies making sugar without bone char in Europe and the UK than there are in the USA.
But that doesn’t help us much, because you still can’t tell by just looking at the sugar.
What you can tell though, is which type of sugar you’re using.
And if its made from sugar beets, it won’t have been filtered through bone char. More on bone-char free sugars below.
Firstly, a look at refined sugar on the whole.
What is Refined Sugar?
Refined sugar is made predominantly from two sources: sugar cane or sugar beets.
The sugar is extracted through a complicated multi-stage process, eventually leaving a syrup which is then used to form crystallised sugar.
Refined sugar is a simple sugar (or monosaccharide) that’s called sucrose. One molecule of sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose. These sugars occur naturally in plants.
Our body uses sugar to create energy and form proteins, though we can also fulfil our sugar needs by breaking down long chain carbohydrates from rice and potatoes etc.
Nowhere in nature would we find such a concentrated form of simple sugar. In its whole state, you would be getting fibre and other nutrients at the same time as a little bit of sugar.
Instead, we have singled out this over refined food, simple sugar, and developed the habit of adding it to all sorts of foods.
Negative Health Implications of Eating Refined Sugar
Sugar has a negative health impact on many aspects of the body and mind.
It can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, obesity, tooth rot, bad skin, and may be linked to higher risk of cancer and depression.
Sugar can also lead to heart disease and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, sugar is addictive and it sabotages your ability to feel full, creating a vicious cycle of wanting more.
It also wrecks your taste buds and lets you taste less and less of the real food while you crave the flavour of the refined simple sugar.
In this post on how to go vegan if you don’t like vegetables I talk about how your taste buds can evolve when you give up processed sugar and processed foods.
Therefore, rather than worrying too much about the use of bone char in the production of refined sugar, a much healthier option would be to adopt a whole foods plant based diet and eliminate refined sugar from your diet completely.
Not only does this make sense from a vegan point of view, but also from a health stance.
I don’t know about you, but I want to eat straight-forward, single-ingredient foods. I’m a bit fed up with all the millions of added ingredients which have become the norm for modern day eating.
Why can’t a cabbage just be a cabbage anymore?
Overview: Types of Sugar
Refined White Sugar from Sugar Cane – Might Not Be Vegan
The standard white sugar most people buy is highly refined.
That includes granulated sugar, caster sugar, sugar cubes, powdered cooking sugar and the common sugar found in product ingredient lists.
White sugar has been processed and filtered to remove all impurities and whitened.
This may – or may not – be done using bone char filtration but there is no way of knowing by looking at the sugar.
Processed sugar doesn’t contain bone char but has been filtered through it and the use of the bones of dead animals from the meat and leather industries is enough to make most vegans hesitate before consuming sugar.
Brown Sugar – Might Not Be Vegan
Brown sugar is white sugar that’s had some molasses returned to it to give it the brown colour.
It’s still a highly refined sugar and still has the same qualities as the white sugar along with the same possibility of being filtered using bone char.
Raw Sugar – Vegan
Despite the name, raw sugar isn’t actually raw.
It’s been cooked and heated just like the processed sugars in order to separate the sugar from the cane but it isn’t as processed as standard white sugar.
Raw sugar has had some of the molasses removed, but not all of it.
The darker types of raw sugar have more molasses added back to them.
Raw sugar doesn’t get bleached so you can safely eat it as part of a vegan diet if it’s only the bone char you’re worried about.
It falls between the refined sugars and the unrefined sugars.
Unrefined Brown Sugar – Vegan
Unlike the normal brown sugar, which has been bleached and then had the molasses added back to it, unrefined brown sugar hasn’t been bleached in the first place and gets its colour from the molasses naturally occurring in it.
Unrefined brown sugar doesn’t use bone char in its production.
Is Unrefined Sugar Healthier than Refined Sugar?
When you extract sugar from a plant such as sugar cane plant or sugar beets, even if it’s classified as unrefined, it still isn’t a whole food.
When you eat a whole food that contains natural sugar, your body has to work harder to get the sugar and there will be less of a blood-sugar spike as well as more nutrients from the whole food.
Any type of processed sugar, whether it is refined or unrefined, is unhealthy for you.
Try to replace it with whole foods.
Your body will thank you for it.
Organic Sugar – Vegan
Organic sugar means that the sugar cane or sugar beets weren’t treated with chemicals and pesticides and that likewise in the processing of the sugar, no chemicals are used.
You can buy organic raw sugar and organic unprocessed sugar.
Organic sugar has not been filtered over bone char.
Harvesting the Sugarcane – Is that Even Vegan?
On a completely other note, once you start to questions the ethics of our industrial, commercial world, there is a labyrinth of learning which is actually quite difficult to uncover.
Nobody could accuse the human being of being transparent in business.
And so it is with industry.
Maybe as vegans we have a responsibility not just to read the ingredients but also to check out the ethical production of a product.
We can seek to support smaller companies who employ people using great working ethics and no animal exploitation. But it is a life long task to find and identify such ethical companies and nobody can say that it’s easy.
We can only do out bit.
And every year we can hope that there are more people waking up to being more conscious consumers.
When you go down the rabbit hole of investigating what is and what isn’t vegan, there is an endless learning curve and continual questions.
I mean, how well are the animals treated in the harvesting of sugar cane?
But that’s another story all together.
A bit like child labour to produce our clothes.
It’s like working against the force of our human industrial world, trying to buy only ethically produced products.
But we can continue to try.
What to do About Sugar if You’re Vegan
Regardless of the type of filtration used, vegan or not, processed sugar is an unhealthy food.
Ask yourself the question: do you feel better since switching to a vegan diet? And if the answer isn’t 100% yes, then maybe you should consider giving up sugar.
It has no health benefits whatsoever, so maybe the best solution is to try looking for a vegan alternative natural sweetener instead of buying refined sugar which may not be vegan anyway.
Is Certified Organic Sugar Vegan?
Yes, it is. It doesn’t use bone char filtration but it still isn’t healthy and we have no way of knowing the conditions of work unless we support ethical companies.
Organic sugar isn’t any more wholesome for you than other refined sugar. It’s still refined simple sugar.
At least it isn’t produced with chemicals though.
Is Cane Sugar Vegan?
It depends on the filtering process used by the manufacturer.
Is Sugar in the UK Vegan?
According to this post from the BBC, most sugar is the UK is vegan because bone char is not the most common way to filter sugar in the UK.
In the USA the most common form is using bone char.
However, the BBC adds that icing sugar has egg white added to it so that type of sugar may not be vegan.
What are Some Vegan Alternatives to Sugar?
- Date paste
- Maple syrup
- Coconut sugar
When first going vegan it can be a minefield trying to discover exactly what foods are vegan and which are not, and sugar is just one of the most common vegan FAQ.
I hope you enjoyed this post and that it helps you to decide whether or not refined sugar is something you want to include in your diet or not.
P.S. My favourite sweeteners are Medjool dates or Maple syrup.