Refined Sugar: Why It May Not Be Vegan

For most vegans, sugar is a plant-based ingredient like any other.

However, if you’re a stricter vegan, things get a bit more complicated, and what is technically a plant-based ingredient may not be vegan. 

When we talk about sugar being vegan or not, we’re talking specifically about refined sugar, the same sugar you use for baking.

White, brown, and powdered sugar are all classified as refined sugar.

What Makes Refined Sugar Not Vegan?

white sugar

Typically, refined sugar comes from two sources: sugarcane and beets.

While both sugars are similar in taste and texture, the refining process from these sources is very different. On one hand, beet sugar is extracted using a diffuser, mixed with additives to crystallize, and it’s always vegan.

However, to make refined sugar from sugarcane, the sugarcane stalks are crushed to separate the juice from the pulp, and the juice is then processed, filtered, and bleached with bone char.

What is Bone Char?

According to Peta, bone char is made from the bones of cattle from countries like Afghanistan, Argentina, India, and Pakistan. The bones are sold to traders in Scotland, Egypt, and Brazil who then sell them to sugar companies in the United States.

Bone char, also known as natural carbon, is used by the sugar industry as a decolorizing filter, which is what gives refined sugar its white, pristine color.

Bone char is also used in other types of sugar.

For instance, brown sugar is created by adding molasses to refined sugar, so companies that use bone char in regular, refined sugar, also include bone char in brown sugar production.

Some Companies Rely On Alternatives

Thankfully, not all companies rely on bone char to process sugar.

Some companies use other types of filters such as granular carbon or an ion-exchange system.

However, the problem is that ingredient labels do not distinguish which type of sugar is being used on their product. The only way of knowing that is by contacting the company.

Plus, not all companies are open about that, unless we’re talking about Oreos or Red Bull.

What I’ve noticed (at least in companies I’ve contacted), is that they source sugar from different suppliers. Therefore, you have products of the same kind with distinct sugars.

What About Store-Bought Sugar?

If you want to buy sugar to make a cake, there are few things you can do to avoid sugar that is refined with bone char. The first thing is: buy sugar that comes from sugar beets.

While some people may have a different opinion, I do believe beet and cane sugar have the same taste and texture, so if you’re baking a cake, the final product will be the same.

However, if you want to purchase cane sugar, stick to brands that are vegan certified.

Another thing you can do is look for sugar that contains the following words in the package:

  • Organic
  • Natural
  • Raw
  • Unrefined

If a label contains any of these adjectives, then the sugar is probably free from bone char because they follow a different process. With organic sugar, the sugar cane juice is boiled, spun in a centrifuge and dried into sugar crystals.

Naturally, this sugar is note as white or pristine, but it’s equally awesome.

In addition, you can also try healthier sugar alternatives.

Additional Alternatives to Sugar

If you’re familiar with the repercussions of regular, refined sugar, then you know that avoiding refined sugar is always the best solution.

I know it’s tough, but there are some great (and healthier) alternatives out there:

  • Agave syrup
  • Date sugar
  • Dates
  • Maple Syrup
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Stevia
  • Monk Fruit
  • Brown Rice Syrup

All of which you can rely on to create the most marvelous desserts.


To briefly summarize, here are a few bullet points:

  • The reason cane sugar may not be vegan is because it may be refined using bone char, which is essentially the carbonized bone of cattle;
  • Try to find options that say “organic, raw, natural, or unrefined” on the label, as those options are most likely vegan. Also, feel free to buy beet sugar.
  • Lastly, try out healthier alternatives like date sugar or agave syrup. The options are abundant.

Thank you for reading this quick post. I hope it served you well!

Hey there! My name is Alex and I've been vegan for over five years! I've set up this blog because I'm passionate about veganism and living a more spiritually fulfilling life where I'm more in tune with nature. Hopefully, I can use Vegan Foundry as a channel to help you out on your own journey!