One of the pesky annoyances of being vegan involves white cane sugar—a staple pantry ingredient that also shows up in the majority of processed foods. This sugar is made from the sugar cane plant, which after harvesting is masticated and the pulp squeezed in what is essentially a gigantic juicer. The resultant brown juice can be boiled down to a solid (and then pulverized, if desired, into powder). Costa Ricans call this sugar tapa dulce, other Central Americans call it panela, and the Portugese call it rapidura.
These sugars—common throughout Central and South America—are always vegan, but what about regular white sugar?
Is Sugar Vegan?
The trouble is that 20th Century Betty Crocker sensibilities dictated that brown food is inferior, and that flour, rice, and sugar ought to be white as snow. To accommodate this thinking, sugar refineries subject unprocessed cane juice to harsh processing that strips out its nutrients and delicate flavors. One step of this processing is particularly objectionable to vegans—the sugar crystals are stripped of their color and nutrients by being pushed through a massive filter made from bone char (burnt-up animal bones.)
There’s no doubt that giant sugar refineries could easily switch filter components to vegan materials. But vegans and people concerned about this sort of thing haven’t yet reached the numbers required to convince the sugar companies to make the switch. While this change seems likely to happen in the foreseeable future that’s no consolation to vegans today.
That said, it’s worth putting this admittedly annoying problem into context. While it’s true that most white cane sugar makes contact with animal bones, none of this bone char ends up the finished product. And much of what vegans eat is of course from crops that were fertilized with non-vegan substances ranging from pig manure to chicken blood meal to fish emulsion, yet animal-based fertilizer typically gets a free pass from the Vegan Police since even they can’t reliably avoid it. By contrast, the Vegan Police tend to lose their minds over white sugar.
The Ethical Implications of Bone Char
Fortunately, however icky and objectionable animal waste products may be, it’s hard to make a reasonable case that fertilizer, to say nothing of bone char (which is repeatedly washed and re-used) contributes at all significantly to the meat industry’s bottom line. All these things can and will be automatically gotten rid of as we edge closer to a vegan world, but the reality is that making these things the focus of our attention is not a sensible path to dismantling the meat industry. It’s impossible to argue that refraining from white sugar has any impact on the more than 50 billion animals killed for food each year.
If sugar refined with bone char is a major gross out to you, then the only way to avoid it is to not cook with white cane sugar (unless it is specifically labeled vegan) and to avoid processed food that lists “sugar” on the label with no additional detail.
Vegan Sugars & Other Sweeteners
Avoiding generic cane sugar in your kitchen is easy since there are all sorts of great alternatives. You can even buy regular white table sugar as long as it’s labeled as vegan or as coming from sugar beets. Sugar beet juice is much easier to refine than cane juice and is not filtered through bone char.
But better still, you can avoid white sugar entirely and buy a product that’s less refined. Turbinado sugar is light brown because it has not had its molasses component extracted. And Sucanat (a trademarked contraction of “Sugar Cane Natural”) is even less refined, and what’s more is made from organically grown cane. It’s worth inserting at this juncture that sugar cane is typically grown on some of the nastiest pesticide-drenched monocultured fields of any food product. After harvest these fields are burned to the ground, dooming any critters who’ve made these fields their home. This is all the more reason why vegans may want to choose organic cane products from growers who presumably behave more ethically and sustainably.
Since turbinado and Sucanat are both brownish and vegan you might assume that brown sugar is likewise processed without bone char. No such luck. It turns out that most brown sugar starts as regular refined white cane sugar, which is then partially caramelized, and has a little molasses added back.
There are numerous other sweeteners that can replace sugar for many uses. Brown rice syrup is a gentle tasting and excellent sweetener. Maple syrup imparts its delectable flavor on everything it touches. While agave nectar is popular, and organic brands are widely available, we don’t recommend the stuff since it’s loaded with fructose that will jack your blood sugar.
Since it comes from bees, honey is obviously off the table for vegans. But there are vegan honey products on the market that get rave reviews.
Sweet Dreams are Made of This
When you become vegan there are a number of important things to know and a long list of pesky and relatively inconsequential details to keep in mind. Worrying about your sources of sugar is surely near the bottom of this list, especially since you’ll find that, as you continue to clean up and improve your diet, your consumption of refined sugars rapidly and automatically diminishes.
Your body certainly has a need for sugars to be included in your diet, but as time goes by you’re likely to find an ever-increasing portion of your dietary sugar is naturally provided by fruit. And this is not at all to suggest that as a vegan you’ll be entering into a joyless realm of mediocre desserts. It’s already easy to find or make superb desserts that contain high quality ethically-produced sugars. It certainly takes extra effort to ensure your food is made from good ingredients, but where sweeteners are concerned rest assured that you’ll never need to sacrifice one iota of flavor if you choose to steer clear of conventionally-produced white or brown cane sugar.