Is powdered sugar vegan?

Powdered sugar is one of those ingredients that turns up everywhere, topping donuts, sweetening desserts and dusting certain types of otherwise sticky sweets. You’d be forgiven for assuming that, since sugar is made entirely from plants, it would be a vegan product. It’s made from sugar cane or sugar beets, both of which are plants and thus vegan safe. Life is never that simple, unfortunately.

Powdered sugar, like sugar in general, is sometimes refined using materials that are definitely not vegan. Most cane sugar is not really okay for vegans. To find out which sugars are vegan, read on.

Is powdered sugar vegan? It can be, but vegans need to be very careful about the sugar they consume. Some sugars are refined using methods that involve animal products, and are therefore unacceptable for a strict vegan diet. The methods and labour practices involved in growing and producing sugar can also be of concern.

You’ve arrived here on this page because you have questions about powdered sugar and other sugar products. Maybe you’re a vegan yourself or you want to make sure the food you give a vegan friend is safe for them. Is powdered sugar a vegan food? Why might sugar not be safe for a vegan lifestyle? Can you find powdered sugar that’s okay for vegans? What makes sugar vegan or non-vegan? How is powdered sugar made? What should vegans watch out for when buying products that use powdered sugar? Keep reading to find out the answers.

Is powdered sugar vegan?

Some powdered sugar is fine for vegans. Some isn’t. How can you tell the difference?

Powdered sugar, also known as confectioner’s sugar, is a type of sugar that’s been ground into a fine consistency. The texture is much finer than granulated sugar but slightly coarser than icing sugar. Powdered sugar is used to give a sweet flavour and attractive decoration to various foods. It’s also used in some recipes that need a fast-dissolving sugar. In terms of what it actually contains, there’s no difference between powdered sugar and other forms of sugar. The only difference is the texture.

Sugar is a pure plant-based food, so it ought to be vegan. Problems arise when you look at the methods used to refine the sugar. With cane sugar, a lot of refinement is needed to produce the pure-white appearance of most powdered sugar. About half of all cane sugar is refined using a material called bone char.

Bone char is a material that’s valued in the sugar industry for its ability to filter out the impurities and other constituents that make natural sugar brown. Bone char has fine pores and easily captures the unwanted material. It’s also very cheap to produce and thus increases the profits that sugar producers can enjoy.

Unfortunately for vegans and the stricter members of the vegetarian community, bone char is made from — well, bone. Animal bones are heated to turn them into a substance similar to charcoal, and then used to filter and refine sugar.

Whether or not sugar refined using bone char is vegan will depend on your approach to veganism. For vegans who focus solely on diet, the one char process isn’t a matter for concern. None of the bone ends up in sugar, so you’re not actually eating animal products. With that said, most dietary vegans are motivated by health concerns; sugar, no matter what methods are used to refine it, is not really a health food.

For ethical vegans (those motivated by concern for animals and the environment), bone char absolutely rendered sugar non-vegan. If the process of manufacture involves animal products, the food is no longer vegan. It might seem like a minor distinction to some, but it’s very important to many of us that our food be completely cruelty-free.

So is all sugar non-vegan?

Fortunately for those of us with a sweet tooth, not all sugar is made with bone char. It’s entirely possible to refine sugar using methods and materials that don’t contain any animal products at all.

It’s also important to note that only cane sugar is refined using bone char. Beet sugar doesn’t undergo this kind of refinement, so it stays vegan from the field to the top of your morning donut. Beet sugar is produced by finely slicing the beets and steeping them in hot water. The beets are then pressed to get out the last of teh juice. This produces a strong sugar solution. The resulting sugary juice is then purified using calcium carbonate (that’s chalk to you and me), removing any non-sugar compounds. The purified sugar solution is boiled and processed so that the sugar crystallises out.

Beet sugar has other advantage too. Even without bone char, some cane sugar is dubiously vegan due to the way the sugar cane is grown. Like many cash crops, sugar cane can be an ethical minefield. It’s often grown very intensively, with large tracts of virgin jungle slashed and burned to make way for sugar plantations. This destroys animal habitats and has a dire effect on both the global and local environment. As an ethical vegan whose lifestyle is rooted in concern for both animals and the environment, this makes most cane sugar and absolute no-no. Labour practices are often horrific, with human rights violations being common.

Beet sugar, on the other hand, is farmed less intensively. It can be grown in the cooler climate of Europe, which means that sugar beet farming can be more closely supervised and regulated. Growing sugar beet doesn’t require the destruction of precious tropical habitats. This makes organic beet sugar a really good option for vegans.

If you can’t find powdered sugar that meets your ethical requirements, don’t worry. You can turn ordinary granulated sugar into powdered sugar by whizzing it in the blender for two or three minutes. Add a little corn starch to the sugar to stop it from clumping.

So I can eat as much powdered sugar as I want?

Not really. Even though they’re more ethically produced, beet sugar and organic cane sugar aren’t a lot healthier than other sugars. As much as I like sweet things, I try to restrict my intake to a little sugar now and again. Despite what the sugar industry would have us believe, sugar is not a health food.

Brown sugar is a little healthier, because it contains a few more nutrients. Even so, it’s largely empty calories. Consuming lots of sugar without fibre, vitamins or nutrients can contribute to weight gain; it also puts a strain on your pancreas, which has to work harder and harder to deal with the excess sugar in your bloodstream. Calorie dense foods are great for endurance athletes, mountaineers and those involved in heavy physical activity, but they’re not really a necessity for the rest of us.

Sugar is also a real problem for your teeth. When skeletons are unearthed of people who lived before the Elizabethan era (when refined sugar rose to prominence), archaeologists are often struck by how good their teeth are. It turns out that sugar damages your teeth at a rate that outpaces even the best efforts of advanced modern dentistry.

While some claims about sugar’s ill effects are disputed, there’s really no doubt that it is not great for your health. As a vegan, you’re probably pretty health-conscious, and it would be a shame to compromise the many health benefits of a vegan lifestyle by eating a lot of sugar. Personally, I try to keep my sugar intake down by using natural substitutes like Stevia and liquorice root. Powdered sugar is also helpful — you can dust it lightly onto fruit and healthy snacks for a sweet taste without much additional sugar. Because the sugar crystals are smaller, they produce a more intense sweetness with less actual sugar.

Robert Van De Ville

Robert Van De Ville is a registered nutritionist, he earned his degree in nutrition from California State University. Now based in London UK. An author of the upcoming book, researcher and dedicated vegan activist.

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