If, like me, you have always assumed sugar, which comes from a plant, is vegan-friendly, you could be in for a shock. It seems that some refined sugars actually get filtered through charred cow bones. So, is sugar vegan? Unfortunately, not all brands. 

Why are charred cow bones used to filter sugar? 

More commonly known as natural carbon, bone char is used in the processing of sugar cane. The purpose of it is to decolour the sugar, achieving the white sugar we are used to adding to our tea and coffee or cereal.

These charred cattle bones come from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Argentina. They are sold to manufacturers of sugar who use them to process and refine their sugar. It’s not just the sugar you are spooning into food and drinks that are affected either.

Refined sugar is often used in food and even beauty products such as lip scrubs. Lush had previously recalled their lip scrub when it was discovered that the sugar used in the scrub was from a factory in Japan that uses bone char in the refining process.

Is it just white sugar that may not be vegan?

Since bone filtration is used to make the white sugar we use on our cereal, brown sugar is OK, right? Apparently, not all brown sugar escapes the bone char filtration either. Those which add molasses, for instance, are often subject to the same bone char filtration process. 

Confectioners’ sugar is also non-vegan. This is created by adding corn starch to refined cane sugar. Anything using refined sugar is potentially not-vegan. 

How can I be sure the sugar I buy is vegan?

When looking for vegan-friendly sugars, you should try to source raw or unrefined products. These types of sugar have not gone through the refining process, which uses bone char and are therefore vegan-friendly. 

Beet sugar is easier to refine, which means it doesn’t require bone char in the filtration process. This makes it a safe vegan-friendly alternative.

There are also some refined sugars that are vegan-friendly. Manufacturers of these use ion-exchange systems or granular carbon in their filtration process instead. In the UK, Tate and Lyle, and Bollington’s sugars are vegan-friendly. Silver Spoon’s white sugar is OK, but the brown sugar may not be.

Why not opt for refined sugar alternatives?

Of course, sugar is not the only sweetener out there. You could opt to add a drop of agave or maple syrup to your porridge or hot drink instead or go healthy and eliminate sugar from your diet.

Remember to avoid honey, as that’s also not vegan. We explain why here. Demerara sugar, muscovado sugar and non-white golden caster sugar are also vegan-safe alternatives you could make the switch to.

Annoyingly these bone chars are not necessary; it’s like the unnecessary addition of milk powder in everything that irritates us, vegans. Unfortunately, things such as biscuits and sweets may not be vegan after all, which is another reason to look for the vegan certification on products to be confident that what you are consuming is, in fact, vegan-friendly and free from animal torture.