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Is Brown Sugar Vegan: A Full Breakdown of the Sugar Process & Bone Char


Though sugar comes from two plant-based sources, not all sugar brands are 100% animal-product-free! Learn more about the sugar-making process and how to determine if the potential for bone char in sugar is a dealbreaker for you. 

Sugar is sugar, right?

It seems like a simple conclusion to draw that vegans can eat this plant-based sweet, but many omit it from their diets altogether. While the ingredients are all technically vegan, the process used to make sugar draws a grey area for some vegans, and consequently, they choose to avoid white sugar. 

But is brown sugar processed in the same way? 

Sometimes, but not always! 

We're taking you through the sweet steps of the sugar refining process so you can determine if brown sugar fits into your plant-based diet, or you'd rather avoid it. 

Beet Sugar Vs. Cane Sugar: How is sugar made?

While sugar used to come exclusively from the sugar cane plant, we now source the majority of modern sugar supplies from both sugar cane and sugar beets - a root vegetable that has a very high concentration of fructose. 

Let's walk through both sugar-making processes to determine where vegans are running into issues with this sweet powder. 

Beet Sugar Production

  1. Harvest. Farmers harvest sugar beet crops in the autumn and early winter, then wash and separate them from their leaves. 
  2. Extraction. Thinly sliced sugar beets sit in hot water which helps to extract the sugar and create a very sweet, concentrated sugar solution, or "juice."
  3. Pressing. Once very little sugar remains, the producers press the beet slices to remove any excess sweet juice. 
  4. Carbonation. Producers grow small clumps of chalk in the sugar solution. These collect any non-sugar ingredients for easy removal. 
  5. Boiling. Once the producers remove non-sugars, they boil the juice to remove as much liquid as possible, creating a super-concentrated liquid. 
  6. Sugar Crystal Formation. The sugar syrup is combined with sugar dust to start the crystal formation process. Once crystals form, the remaining mixture separates into centrifuges and is dried further before packing and shipping. 

Cane Sugar Production

  1. Harvest. At harvest time, farmers chop sugarcane from its stems and roots, which will regrow new crops.
  2. Extraction. Instead of soaking, producers crush sugarcane between two large rollers to extract its sugar water, also called "juice."
  3. Cleaning. Producers remove non-sugars like dirt and leaves with slaked lime for easy removal. 
  4. Boiling. Once they remove all non-sugars, the sugar juice boils to remove excess liquid and create a more concentrated juice. 
  5. Sugar Crystal Formation. Sugar syrup combines with sugar dust to promote a crystal formation, and the remaining syrup mixture separates into centrifuges to dry before storage—the remaining liquid forms molasses. 
  6. Refining. Cane sugar is naturally light brown. To give the sugar that white color, producers further refine it through natural carbon, also known as bone char. This bone char sources from animal bones heated until they are reduced to carbon. Some producers use granular carbon instead of bone char, which is a great vegan alternative. 

Is sugar vegan?

After taking a closer look at beet sugar production processes, it's clear that beet sugar is always vegan because, unlike cane sugar, there is no carbon filtration process. 

Technically, cane sugar no longer contains any bone char in its ingredients, but we often use animal products during the filtration process, which turns some vegans away from it. Raw sugar is unbleached cane sugar, which means it skips the filtration step in the process altogether - all raw sugar is guaranteed vegan. 

The issue many vegans run into is the difficulty in determining whether a brand of cane sugar uses animal char or vegan carbon in its sugar-making processes.

The silliest part of this whole debacle is that there is zero reason to filter sugar, as there is no taste difference between filtered and unfiltered. 

The bleaching process started in the 20th century when people decided they prefer light-colored, white foods over brown. In the past two decades, we've discovered that more processing isn't better for us. It’s usually worse. 

While we've seen producers of other foods make their processes more vegan-friendly, the transformation of the sugar industry is a little slow. While some manufacturers are abolishing bone char from their practices, there are still many brands of non-vegan sugar around. 

Is brown sugar vegan?

But… what about brown sugar? Is it brown because it's unfiltered and therefore free of bone char and safe for vegan consumption? Though that argument makes logical sense, it's not the case for brown sugar. 

Does Brown sugar contain bone char?

How is brown sugar made?

Producers make brown sugar by taking refined white sugar and adding molasses to it, which means that whether brown sugar is vegan depends on how they refine that white sugar. 

Much like white sugar, some brown sugar uses vegan refining processes, while others may use animal bone char. 

Bone Char & The Ethics of Veganism

The definition of veganism bases itself on avoiding and abolishing animal exploitation, "as much as practicable and possible." The definition seems purposely vague to allow people to draw their own lines about which foods to include or omit from their diets, depending on their interpretation of how practicable the expectations. 

Though many vegans refuse to eat white sugar because of the bone char, it's not as easy as removing white sugar from your recipes. Many, and maybe most, processed foods these days contain sugar in some form - can a vegan stop eating not only sugar but most processed foods? The answer is deeply personal, and there isn't one right way to be a vegan. 

How to Tell if Sugar is Vegan

Finding out more about your sugar sources can be tough. Before you call up each sugar company individually to grill them about their processes and whether they include bone char, follow these simple rules below. 

  • Sugar made from sugar beets is always vegan. 
  • Cane sugar that's labeled "vegan" is processed without bone char.
  • Organic sugar is always vegan - the USDA requires that guarantee before giving products the "organic" stamp of approval.
  • Unrefined sugar doesn't come into contact with carbon and is always vegan.
  • Natural or raw sugar is always vegan-friendly. 

For any brands that are unclear in their labeling, steer clear of them altogether or fire off an email to their customer support staff to find out more. We've also included a handy list of vegan brown sugar brands you can reference for easy sugar shopping. 

Best Vegan Brown Sugar Brands 

  • Trader Joe's Organic Brown Sugar 
  • Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Light Brown Sugar 
  • Zulka
  • Wholesome Sweeteners Organic Dark Brown Sugar 
  • Woodstock Organic Brown Sugar

How to Make an Easy Vegan Substitute for Brown Sugar

You can easily make your own (delicious!) plant-based substitute at home, with no bone char, by mixing some coconut sugar with molasses. If you're looking to make light brown sugar, try less molasses and add some extra to substitute for dark brown sugar. 

Is brown sugar better than white sugar?

Though brown sugar seems less refined, we now know it's not. Though brown sugar is refined sugar, it contains molasses, which adds some trace minerals to brown sugar that aren't present in white. The difference isn't enough to provide any added health benefits. 

What is the difference between light and dark brown sugar?

Dark brown refined sugar contains more molasses, contributing to its deeper color. Dark brown has 6.5% molasses, while light brown refined sugar includes a little more than half that, at 3.5%.

Final Verdict: Is brown sugar vegan?

It depends on the brand. If you're ever unsure about a brand, reach out to them to find out more. Or better yet, use our easy homemade vegan brown sugar substitute instead. 

If you liked learning more about brown sugar and veganism, check out the following article in our series, "Is Molasses Vegan?"

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