Most vegan food is easy to identify. You don’t need to delve much into the vegan suitability of fruits (well, maybe figs…) vegetables, nuts, and seeds. However, once you enter the sweet world of candy and sugar, things might be a little more uncertain. Honey is a no-brainer, and marshmallows are pretty widely known not to be vegan-friendly due to the use of gelatin in their ingredients.
Sugar however, specifically the refined stuff, is a widely used product that might not be as animal free as many assume. Refined sugar comes from two sources, sugar cane and sugar beets, and both go through different processes to become the white granules we are so familiar with.
In the refinement of sugar beets, the juice is extracted from the taproot and then diffused and mixed with additives that crystalize the juice. Simple enough, right? When it comes to sugar cane however, things get a bit more uncertain.
First, the stalks of the sugarcane are crushed and juice is separated from the pulp. The juice is then heated until it crystalizes before being filtered and then bleached with bone char, which achieves the sparkling, bright white characteristic of refined sugar. To make bone char for sugar refineries, bones (derived from cows in the U.S.) are heated to very high temperatures and become carbon. The sugar ultimately does not contain any of the bone char, but it does come into contact with the animal product, which might be a concern for many vegans.
Many assume that simply by eliminating all cane sugar, the problem can be avoided, since the refinement of beet sugar never relies on bone char. However, since the two sugars can behave slightly differently in cooking (specifically in baking, due to factors like trace minerals and difference in moisture), the simple substitution of one for the other in recipes might not be so easy. Luckily for anyone trying to avoid animal products, PETA publishes a list on their website that identifies companies that do not use any bone char in their sugar. For more vegan alternatives, click here.