The Real Reason Some Sugar Isn't Vegan

Not that anyone's encouraging you to eat more sugar (it's literally been called "poison" that's "as harmful as cocaine" by one scientist, reports The Guardian), but, let's face it, sometimes you just need some baked goods in your life. Unfortunately, vegans must conquer an extra layer of concern around the sugar they're buying and consuming, because the processes behind certain refined varieties are distinctly (and surprisingly) not animal-friendly, according to animal-rights organization PETA

In a reality check that might also disturb vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, The Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) explains that cow bone char is widely used to filter cane sugar, creating that gleaming white color that consumers expect from their store-bought sugar crystals.

Why do sugar manufacturers use bone char?

Manufacturers derive refined sugar from one of two sources, at about a 50-50 mix: sugar beets or sugarcane (via HuffPost). The good news is, HuffPost reports, sugar beets require no behind-the-scenes colorizing magic to craft a pure-white product, but sugarcane is a different story; its juice is ultimately subject to bone char filtering and bleaching. 

And what is bone char to begin with? The VRG explains that these bones are taken from cattle, dried in the sun, and fired up at 700-plus degrees Celsius for 12 or more hours, leaving behind "an inert granular substance," which is then used as a filter — more confusingly, some companies even call it "natural charcoal."

Is any sugar safe for vegans?

Lest you think that ensuring a vegan sugar choice is as easy as choosing sugar beet-derived varieties vs. those made from sugarcane — not so fast. The VRG notes that labels don't define the source of refined sugar, and many manufacturers store the two sugar types together, so they often mix — though some manufacturers have changed their processes to nix the need for bone char altogether. 

And PETA, which offers a handy list of vegan-approved sugars on its site, warns that bone char can be used for brown and confectioner's sugar, too. The best solution, according to the organization: Purchase organic sugar, which cannot be produced with bone char filtering, or opt for an alternate vegan sweetener, like agave, molasses, or stevia.