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Sugar: Is It Vegan?

 This Saturday is my family’s annual Cookie Day.  We all get together in my mom’s large kitchen and bake the majority of the cookies we will consume over the holiday season.  It’s a great time to drink coffee, reconnect, and try new recipes along with the time-tested favorites. 

I always opt for making a vegan cookie.  Surprise, surprise!  So, I substitute butter with vegetable shortening and eggs with ground flaxseed or bananas.  But I don’t stop there.  I also have to consider the source of my sweetener.

Ah, sugar.  Most people outside the vegan community (and some inside it) don’t know that sugar is not always vegan.  And when they find out, the world tends to collapse around them.  I mean, what product can you buy that doesn’t have sugar in it?  Not many, right?  Sodas, soups, breads – all of them no longer on the vegan table once this dirty little secret unfolds.

I know you really want me to tell you that I’m kidding.  That sugar is A-ok and to just go ahead and use it in any and all of your baking projects, coffee drinks, and morning cereal.  But the truth is, it’s not that simple. 

Sugarcane (what sugar is made out of) is a plant and, therefore, vegan.  The refining process, however, which turns the sugarcane grass into usable sugar as we know it, is generally not.  That’s not to say that some companies don’t produce vegan-friendly sugar, because they do.  But you have to do your research first.

Luckily for you, I love research and have done it for you!

First thing’s first, though.  What exactly is it that makes sugar a non-vegan product?

Bone char.  That is, charred animal (primarily bovine) bones.  You’re thinking, WTF.  Am I right?  I know I was wondering what in hell my fellow humans were thinking when they came up with that one.  But, I digress.

Bone char acts as a filter in refining raw sugar.  Not only does it filter out any residual impurities that weren’t washed away at the beginning of its processing, but it also absorbs particles that give sugar a non-white color.  This includes amino acids, carboxylic acids, phenols, and ash.  And due to its economic appeal when compared to other available filtration systems (such as the ion exchange system), it remains most favorable among sugar cane producers. 

That’s not to say that it will always be this way.  If there’s one thing we can learn from the vegan movement, it’s that companies are beginning to market more toward us because of our exponentially-growing numbers. 

 In the meantime, however, we can simply choose alternatives. Dates, maple syrup, agave nectar, molasses, and stevia are just a few types of sweeteners you can use in place of table sugar.  They can be used in baking, as well.

But if your heart is set on using regular ol’ sugar, there is good news:  It’s not that hard to find some free from bone char contamination.

Beet sugar, for example, is always vegan and practically identical to sugar made from sugar cane.  Just make sure that if you buy it, you’re buying 100% pure beet sugar.  If the package doesn’t say that, there’s a good chance it’s a combination of sugar beets and sugar cane, as they’re often mixed together. 

All organic sugars on the shelves of your grocery store are bone char free, as is sugar processed by the companies listed below:

  • Please note that this list comes from PETA’s website. 

So, while it’s a little disturbing that something as simple as sugar has to be scrutinized for its vegan viability, at least there are easily accessible options for whatever it is you need. 

As for me and my baking needs, I’ll be using beet sugar come Cookie Day.  How about you?  What experience do you have with alternative sweeteners?

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