Sugar Types Explained - '' A Beginner's Guide To Vegan Sugars ''

12 min read
27 Jul

As we’ve learned ten-fold with palm-oil, any natural resource can be corrupted in it’s journey from plantation to plate. Cane sugar is no different and, for hundreds of years, bone char from cattle has been used in the sugar refining and bleaching process. Whether you want to be a more strict vegetarian, newly vegan, or just starting a cruelty-free life, you should know that there are many animal-friendly sugar alternatives out there. And there’s absolutely no reason that anyone should have to use bone-char filtered sugar or honey to make their favorite treats.  In the culinary arts, the word "sugar" refers to crystalized sucrose that is derived either from sugar cane or sugar beets. When you think about sugar, the first thing that probably comes to mind is sweetness. And while it does sweeten baked goods, savory dishes, and drinks, the uses for sugar are many. Sugar provides sweetness, and it also performs a number of interesting functions in baking. For instance, sugar slows down the formation of gluten in wheat flour, which means baked goods will tend to be softer, with a finer texture, the more sugar they contain. Sugar also has a property called hygroscopy, which means it attracts and retains moisture. This helps baked goods stay fresher longer, since the presence of sugar helps prevent the ordinary drying out, or staling, of breads, cakes, and so on. And of course, sugar is the food for the yeast organisms that cause breads to rise. How well do you know your vegan sugar varieties? I will be going over several vegan sugar types and will explain more in detail about them. 

Is Sugar Vegan? This is one of the most asked questions in the vegan community. What makes sugar not vegan-friendly and how do we find vegan sugar? The answer is yes, but not always. Because it’s complicated, and not necessarily something you can figure out easily, I decided it was time to put together a comprehensive guide that answers the question once and for all. When we are talking about whether sugar is vegan or not, we are specifically talking about refined sugar, aka, table sugar. That is the sugar we most commonly used in baking. White, brown, and powdered sugar all can classify as refined sugar. Refined sugar comes from two sources: sugarcane and beets. While the two sugars are very similar in taste and texture, the refining process from these sources is very different. The good news is that beet sugar is always vegan. The process of making sugar from beets simply does not require the same level of processing.

Now the vast majority of sugar in the world is not bleached with bone char so most of the big brands are fine. However, you might want to use unbleached sugar to be on the safe side if you are not sure where the sugar comes from. Most baking calls for caster sugar, which is more finely ground than standard table sugar and gives a fine delicate sponge. If you need a liquid sugar, you can swap golden syrup, agave or maple syrup for honey. Not all recipes call for sugar and there are plenty that use a range of fruit sweeteners such as dates or other dried fruit or date paste, including some excellent raw recipes which are well worth a try (yes, it took me a while to get my head around raw baking but once I’d eaten a few I was really sold).

What Makes Sugar Not Vegan?


Let’s start with why some sugars are not considered vegan. To make refined sugar from sugarcane, the sugar cane stalks are crushed to separate the juice from the pulp. The juice is then processed, filtered, and bleached with bone char. That pure white color we associate with sugar – yeah, that comes from the bone char. Now it’s important to note that this type of sugar does not actually contain bone char. But because it is part of the process, most vegans would not eat this kind of refined sugar. Not all refined sugars practice this unnecessary bone char process. Yes, my friends, vegan sugar is everywhere! 

How To Tell If Sugar Is Vegan?


Sugar that comes from sugar beets is considered vegan; the process does not involve bone char. Beet sugar has virtually the same taste and texture as cane sugar; the difference between the two is negligible. If you want to stick with cane sugar, sometimes you’ll find brands that will actually say vegan but most are not certified vegan and therefore, cannot advertise that. Beet sugar is always vegan. Cane sugar, when labeled organic, natural, raw, or unrefined is also vegan. Avoid granulated refined sugars that do not mention any of the above adjectives. When avoiding refined sugar altogether, there are many sugar alternatives. Here are a few other words that you can look for to feel confident that your sugar is, indeed, vegan: Organic, Unrefined, Natural, Raw. When a label uses any of these adjectives, you can rest assured that it has not been filtered with bone char. In the organic practice, the sugar cane juices are boiled, spun in a centrifuge, and dried into sugar crystals. 

 Beet Sugar

Beet sugar is derived from the sugar beet plant, a root vegetable closely related to beetroot and chard. Along with sugarcane, sugar beets are among the most common plants used in the production of white sugar. Sugar beets are also used to produce other types of refined sugar, such as molasses and brown sugar. However, since the source of the sugar is not always disclosed on food products and labels, it can be difficult to determine whether they contain beet or cane sugar. Beet sugar is made using a process that involves thinly slicing sugar beets to extract the natural sugar juice. The juice is purified and heated to create a concentrated syrup, which is crystallized to form granulated sugar. Although cane sugar and beet sugar are nearly identical in terms of nutrition, they may work differently in recipes. This is, at least partially, due to distinct differences in terms of taste, which can affect how the types of sugar alter the flavor of your dishes.

Beet sugar has an earthy, oxidized aroma and burnt sugar aftertaste. Beet sugar, can create a crunchier texture and has a unique taste that works well in certain baked goods. It’s estimated that about 95% of sugar beets grown in the world are genetically modified. Some people are in favor of genetically modified crops as a sustainable source of food that is highly resistant to insects, herbicides and extreme weather. Meanwhile, others prefer to avoid GMOs due to concerns of antibiotic resistance, food allergies and other possible adverse effects on health.

 Date Sugar

Date sugar is a type of sugar found most commonly in natural food stores since it is less processed than more conventional sugars. It is made from dried dates and adds a rich sweetness to recipes, although it will not dissolve when added to drinks. It also does not melt like granulated sugar which can limit its use. It is sometimes promoted as a healthier alternative to brown sugar, although it can be quite expensive. The sweet fruit you soak to make nut milk sweeter also comes in granulated form. Date sugar is a great alternative to brown sugar. These granules are likely smaller than you may be accustomed and are easily powdered in a grinder. Date sugar tastes light and buttery, a bit like raisins, and isn’t too overpowering. Date sugar is made from the date palm plant, date sugar is a less refined sugar than typical white sugar. Date sugar should not to be confused with date palm sugar or also called palm sugar as this is made from the sap of the sugar palm tree, including date trees.

Date sugar is made by first making a paste from raw dates. Then, the paste is mixed with a substance called maltodextrin (a common food additive). This mixture is oven dried and ground into granules. The proportion of maltodextrin to date paste determines the properties of the sugar. Dates have a few stages of development: khalaal, rutab, and tamr. The best dates to make into date sugar are tamr dates, as they have a very low moisture content (about 30%) and are very sweet. Despite being made from dates this still has a high sugar content, so isn’t much healthier than regular table sugar and won’t offer the same health benefits as eating whole dates. Whole dates will be sweet, but a much less concentrated form of sugar as well as being a source of vitamins and minerals and fibre.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is a natural sugar derived from the unopened flower bud of the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera). It is not highly processed with no additives, bleaching agents, or any chemicals needed to make it. In fact, the only processing that takes place is heating the coconut sap to evaporate its water content. It is considered healthier and more nutritious than other natural and artificial sugar substitutes due to its low Glycaemic Index (GI), vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Although new to the Western world, it has a long and proud history in coconut communities from the South Pacific to South Asia. It is not palm sugar. Some palm sugars are derived from Palmyra as well as other varieties of palm family. Coconut sugar specifically comes from the coconut tree (Cocos nucifera). Palm sugars do not have the same health benefits or low GI as Coconut sugar. It is culturally acceptable in parts of Asia for some manufacturers to mix Coconut sugar with regular cane sugar and malt, and market it as "palm sugar" or "coconut palm sugar". If you want Coconut sugar's health benefit then read the label and make sure that it is made from 100% pure coconut palm/coconut blossom nectar.

Coconut sugar's taste is reminiscent of brown sugar but with a slight hint of caramel. Coconut Sugar can be used on a 1:1 basis in recipes that call for white or brown sugar. Coconut sugar is brown and will turn batters and doughs brown. You can use it for your coffee, tea, baking and cooking. Coconut sugar is quickly gaining popularity as a viable sugar substitute with people who want to watch their calorie and sugar intake. Coconut sugar's low GI provides you with long sustained energy, won't spike your blood sugar like regular sugar and keeps you feeling full for longer. Coconut nectar has a high mineral content. It is a rich source of potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. In addition to this it contains Vitamin B1, B2, B3 and B6. When compared to brown sugar, Coconut sugar has twice the iron, four times the magnesium and over 10 times the amount of zinc. Coconut sugar is unfiltered, unbleached and preservative free. This chart shows a comparison between cane sugar, brown sugar and coconut sugar and their respective quantities of various minerals.

Granulated Sugar

White granulated sugar is the most common form of sugar and it's what most home bakers will use the vast majority of the time. Made interchangeably from beets or cane (the manufacturer's label may or may not specify), this is the go-to sugar for everything from baking and desserts to sauce-making, salad dressing, brines, and marinades—to say nothing of cocktails and other beverages. Both the cane and beet versions are 99.95 percent sucrose. Because of its moisture-attracting properties, granulated sugar can form clumps when stored for a long time, but breaking those clumps up is easy to do, and other than that, sugar doesn't go bad. Just like salt, the shelf life of granulated sugar is basically infinite. In baking, it's often helpful to work with a finer-grained sugar, because it dissolves more easily and aids in producing cakes and cookies with a very delicate texture. This is where products like superfine and ultrafine sugars come in. Sometimes called bakers sugar or caster sugar, these sugars are still crystalline, it's just that the crystals are ground more finely.

Granulated sugar comes from either sugar beets or sugar cane. After an extraction process, different types of sugar can be made. Granulated table sugar is the most common type for use in recipes and day-to-day food flavoring. There are also very fine granulated sugars made for making smooth desserts, or powdered sugar which is granulated sugar that has been ground to a powder and sifted. Some types of light and dark brown sugar are granulated white sugar that has been blended with molasses. Granulated sugar should be kept in an airtight container in your pantry or in a cupboard away from heat and light. It should stay fresh for 18–24 months. According to the USDA, sugar never spoils, but for best quality use within two years of opening. You can freeze sugar but it is not recommended because sugar can pick up food odors easily.

 Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is a less-refined version of ordinary cane sugar, which means it contains a certain amount of molasses as well as caramel, giving it a damp consistency. Because of this, recipes customarily call for measuring brown sugar by packing it tightly into the measuring cup. But the issue is that because of its wet consistency, any given volume of brown sugar can contain a given amount of air, depending on how tightly packed it is. Therefore, for a more precise measurement, you can always refer to the 200 grams per cup conversion. Because of its molasses content, brown sugar has a low enough pH for it to be considered slightly acidic, meaning it will activate baking soda when the two are combined. And of course, it contributes brown color, so it's important to use it in circumstances where you don't mind your baked good obtaining a slightly brown color. You can make your own brown sugar by mixing molasses into ordinary white sugar. Light and dark brown sugars are distinguished by how much molasses they contain, and you can mix yours accordingly to your desired shade. Like all sugars, brown sugar provides calories and carbohydrates but no substantial vitamins or minerals. Brown sugar can be included in some healthy eating patterns if consumed in moderation. 

Brown sugar comes in light and dark brown varieties. Brown sugar is also very similar to another type of sugar called muscovado sugar. While these three sugars can be used interchangeably in most recipes, there are notable differences. Light brown sugar has a caramel color and a light caramel taste. This variety is refined white sugar that has had some molasses added to it. Dark brown sugar is also refined white sugar but it has more molasses added which gives it a darker color and deeper taste. Muscovado sugar—also called Barbados sugar—is unrefined cane sugar that naturally includes molasses. It has the deepest flavor and is more often used in savory dishes. Brown sugars and powdered sugars aren’t totally off the hook either. Brown sugars (light or dark) and powdered sugars are usually made from refined white sugar, either by adding different amounts of molasses to the crystals, or by pulverizing the granules until they turn into a powder. Either way, the white sugar used to create these products is not considered vegan. 

According to the USDA, brown sugar never spoils but it is best if you use it within two years of opening the package. Once the package is opened, it can keep for 18–24 months if stored properly in the pantry. Sugar manufacturers advise that the quality of brown sugar is best when consumed within six months of purchase and opening. However, storing brown sugar properly can be a challenge. Because most forms of brown sugar are sticky, they have a tendency to clump together and get very hard if exposed to air. Some sugar manufacturers recommend that you store it in a cool, moist area in a rustproof container with a tight-fitting lid or in any type of re-sealable, moisture-proof plastic bag. Refrigerating brown sugar is not recommended. But freezing brown sugar is advised if you don't plan to use it right away. Be sure to freeze the sugar in an airtight bag. When it's time to use brown sugar, thaw it and use a fork to separate clumps. If ice crystals have formed in the sugar, stir it while it thaws to prevent the sugar from being affected by pockets of moisture.

 Sugar Alternatives For Vegans

Many people choose to avoid refined sugar for health reasons. I believe in the benefit of avoiding refined sugar and respect those who do. For those of you who want to avoid refined sugar altogether, here are some sweetener alternatives. 

  • Maple Syrup - Maple syrup is made by boiling the thin (like water), slightly sweet sap of the sugar maple tree in large, shallow pans over a very hot fire. The sap is boiled until most of the water in the sap has been evaporated, and it is concentrated, or “reduced,” to syrup. A classic sweetener that is best scrutinized before purchasing, as there are a lot of cheap imitations out there. Real maple syrup can be costly but it is so worth it. Make note of which state or province your syrup hails from; apparently you can taste a real difference between them all. But that might just be a rumor started by maple trees. To replace white or brown sugar, substitute 3/4 cup of maple syrup for each cup of white or brown sugar. Reduce liquids by 3 tablespoons for every cup of maple syrup.

  • Agave Syrup - Derived from the sap of the agave plant (a type of cactus native to Mexico) agave nectar is a sweet brown liquid. Now commonly used as an alternative to sugar, honey or maple syrup, agave has become a popular replacement for table sugar. After the juice is extracted from the plant it is filtered, heated and concentrated into a syrup. Its taste resembles molasses and, as a rule, the darker the colour, the richer the taste. Agave nectar is about one and a half times sweeter than sugar, which means you can achieve the same sweetness by using less. It is versatile and easy to use, popular for sweetening hot drinks, porridge or bakes. It can be used in place of syrups, such as golden syrup, but because it is sweeter than sugar, you'll need less to achieve the same taste. It works well in chewy bakes like flapjacks as well as sticky cakes and muffins. But, be aware that you'll need to cook at a lower temperature (reduce the cooking temperature by about 10C/50F). Although there are slightly more calories in agave than white sugar you will need to use less than half the amount of agave to achieve the same sweetness, meaning fewer calories overall. Agave syrup is processed by heat, which alters raw agave's natural nutrition values and lowers its antioxidant content. It therefore does not have a special nutritional profile and only contains small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium. Substitute 2/3rd cup agave for every 1 cup of sugar. Reduce the liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons per cup of sugar.

  • Brown Rice Syrup -  is a sweetener derived from brown rice. It is produced by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down starches and turn them into smaller sugars, then filtering out the impurities. The result is a thick, sugary syrup. Although brown rice is highly nutritious, its syrup contains very few nutrients. It may host tiny amounts of minerals like calcium and potassium — but this is negligible compared to what you get from whole food. Keep in mind that this syrup is very high in sugar. Thus, brown rice syrup provides ample calories but virtually no essential nutrients. In addition to adding sweetness, brown rice syrup gives baked goods: Moist cake and bread crumb, Food for yeast, desirable flavor, crumb and crust coloring, shelf‐life extension and masking of beany flavors in formulations rich in soy. Totally or partially replacing sugar with brown rice syrup is possible. However, it’s not necessarily at a 1:1 ratio. It is mostly sold as a low DE sweetener, which means it’s less sweet and has a lower amount of fermentable solids than regular sucrose and corn syrups. Due to its water content, brown rice syrup calls for a reduction in dough water absorption when partially or totally replacing sucrose. Brown rice syrup cannot help cream cake batters, so formulas have to be adjusted. It is also important to have in mind that brown rice syrup is less sweet than table sugar, honey, glucose and high fructose corn syrup. Substitute 1 1/3 part Brown Rice Syrup for brown or white sugar. Reduce liquid 3 tbsp per cup of sugar.

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