Is Cotton Candy Vegan? (Here’s Why It Depends)

Did you know cotton candy was invented by a dentist named William Morrison, with the help of confectioner John C. Wharton? I know, coming from a dentist, it sounds nuts.

In 1897, they both designed and patented the electric candy machine, an invention that works pretty much like most modern cotton candy-machines.

At the top of the head, the heater melts the sugar, reducing it to syrup.

In the meantime, the centrifugal force generated by the spinning head forces the liquid sugar through tiny holes to solidify into long skinny strands.

As a result. the liquid sugar never crystallizes, so it’s shaped into what we know as cotton candy.

Cotton Candy: Ingredients

cotton candy

Cotton candy is typically comprised of 2-3 ingredients:

  • Sugar
  • Flavors (natural or artificial)
  • And Artificial Colors.

Technically, cotton candy is vegan-friendly, but it comes down to how strict of a vegan you are.

To further explain why these ingredients may not be vegan (according to stricter vegans), allow me to provide you with proper explanations below.

Refined Sugar

white sugar

Refined sugar can come from two sources: beets or sugarcane.

Both are used in similar amounts in the United States and have an identical taste and texture. However, they have different refining processes.

While beet sugar is filtered through a diffuser and mixed with vegan-friendly additives to crystallize, cane sugar can be processed, filtered and bleached with bone char.

What is bone char?

bone char

Bone char, also known as natural carbon, is used by the sugar industry as a decolorizing and deashing agent, conferring sugar its white and immaculate color. It is also capable of removing various inorganic impurities such as sulfates, as well as the ions of magnesium and calcium.

Unfortunately, bone char is obtained by heating the bones of cattle at high-temperatures, which results in a black and granular substance that resembles charcoal.

Also, because bone char has a low decoloration capacity, it must be used in large quantities.

Some companies rely on alternatives

Yes, not all companies in the sugar industry rely on bone char.

Fortunately, there are modern alternatives such as activated carbon and ion-exchange resins, which can achieve the same result as bone char.

But while this is the case, there is no distinction between the type of sugar that is actually being used, especially when we analyze product labels.

Much like natural flavors, the word “sugar” stands alone on a label.

Therefore, you never know what type of sugar is being used, nor what type of refining process did that sugar undergo before ending on your favorite product.

Thus far, the only way of knowing that information is by contacting companies.

Take Oreos or Ghirardelli for example. These two companies source sugar from a variety of suppliers, including ones that heavily use bone char. In other words, it’s really hard to trace what product is using which sugar, so it’s impossible to trace.

That is part of the reason why those companies don’t consider themselves to be vegan-friendly.

Natural and Artificial Flavors

natural flavors

Generally, there are two types of flavors you find in product labels: natural and artificial.

While they are used interchangeably at times, there is a big difference between them. If you decide to visit the FDA website, you can find a definition for both.

For natural flavors, the definition is:

“… contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring…”

And for artificial flavors, the definition is the following:

“… is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof…”

In other words, natural flavors are derived from “natural sources” such as berries, trees, honey, or even animal sources.

For example, castoreum is a substance extracted from the anal glands of beavers and can be used to create vanilla flavorings, or even enhance strawberry and raspberry flavors. While I’m not certain how often it is relied upon, there is a chance it may be used in some products.

Artificial flavors, on the other hand, are all synthesized in a lab and are considered vegan.

Artificial Colors

animal testing

The issue with artificial colors is that they’re a byproduct of animal testing.

While most vegans are comfortable with consuming products containing artificial colors, the stricter vegans are heavily against it, for legitimate reasons.

As you may be aware, animal testing involves:

  • Force-feeding or injecting animals with harmful substances;
  • Exposing animals to radiation;
  • Surgically removing animal organs or tissues to cause damage;
  • Having animals inhale toxic gases;
  • Or subjecting animals to frightening situations that cause anxiety and depression.

Before they are tested, animals are forced to live in cages, where they are denied freedom of movement and control over their lives.

And while some individuals think that testing artificial colors is a one and done deal, these experiments done in 2017 and 2018 say otherwise.

Because artificial colors may have dire health-effects, labs conduct periodic tests so that they remain safe for consumption. Sadly, an animal is always at the tip of a needle.

Alternatives to Cotton Candy

While I find it hard to come across organic cotton candy at the fair, there may be some places where natural or organic cotton candy may be sold. 

Typically, the differences between regular cotton candy and organic cotton are:

  • Instead of refined sugar, organic cotton contains non-refined sugar, which means the sugar does not go through a filtering and bleaching process that requires bone char;
  • In addition, it’s from dyes (colors), or any other artificial ingredients that may have been through animal testing.

In other words, if you’re keen on avoiding cotton candy that may contain bone char or artificial colors, then organic cotton candy is the way to go. However, you would have to find a place that employs organic/unrefined sugar, and a dye-free process when making cotton candy.

Summary: Cotton Candy Is Technically Vegan.

Cotton candy is technically considered vegan, but there are probably a number of vegans that may be against the use of regular, refined sugar and artificial colors.

As we’ve explained in detail earlier, regular sugar may be refined with bone char, and artificial colors are still known to be tested on animals from time to time.

Because of that, some “stricter” vegans may be against its consumption.

With this being said, cotton candy does not contain animal ingredients, so it is technically considered a plant-based product.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post! 🙂

Alexandre Valente

Hey there! My name is Alex and I've been vegan for more than five years! I've set up this blog because I'm really passionate about veganism and living a more eco-conscious life. Hopefully, I can use this website as a channel to help you out on your own journey!

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