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Over the years, several studies have highlighted the various dangers of excessive sugar consumption, ranging from tooth decay and cardiovascular disease to obesity. While this should provide enough reasons to make everyone mindful of their sugar consumption habits; there exists other hidden dangers in sugar that should factor into the sugar choices of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores alike.
Refined Cane Sugar and Bone Char
Refined sugar; one of the most common ingredients in processed food sold in the United States comes from two main sources; namely, beet sugar and cane sugar. Both these sources are nutritionally equivalent and have minimal difference in taste or chemical structure. The refinement of cane sugar requires a filter of bone char (now called ‘natural charcoal’ by cane sugar companies), granulated carbon, or ion exchange system. These filters work through the absorption process, shifting out inorganic debris and changing the raw sugar’s color. Beet sugar refineries on the other hand do not use bone char because this kind of sugar doesn’t require as intense a ‘decolorizing’ process as cane sugar does.
Vegans rightfully cringe at the thought of consuming refined white cane sugars, as bone char is, simply, ground up cow bones! Brown sugar is not necessarily better (as it might logically seem). It is sugar, whitened, and browned again with molasses. Some brown sugars do not use bone char in the refining process and some do; the chances are equivalent to their granulated white counterparts. The only way to know is to check the label and find out if the sugar factory uses bone char.
Even if you’re not vegan, you have reason to be concerned about refined sugars and bone char. Due to health concerns, the FDA prohibits the use of bones from the United States’ meat industry. Further, the bones are required to come from animals that die of natural causes. While this makes theoretical sense, the reality is bone char is predominantly imported from countries like like Brazil, India, Pakistan and Nigeria and there is no warranty to the American consumer that the bone char used is indeed from a cow that died from natural causes. Further, all refined sugars (whether or not they are refined using bone char) lose their nutritional value as a result of the repeated heating, chemical treatment, filtration and crystallization that they go through. What you end up with is essentially a sweet-tasting toxic substance that is not very safe for vegans and non vegans.
In addition to 100% Pure Beet sugar, ‘Raw’ sugar is typically safe for vegans. Technically speaking, the marketing of any sugar as ‘raw’ is not entirely accurate, as sugar in its raw form has been deemed unfit for human consumption by the FDA. Raw sugar is basically white cane sugar that is slightly less refined and skips the filtration process using bone char. However, it is still processed and much like refined sugar, has little or no nutritional value.
Organic sugar on the other hand is not as heavily refined and may retain some nutritional value. Although definitions of what is considered to be organic may vary across the globe, the general rule is that such sugar is either not refined or minimally processed. In addition, the sugar beets and sugar cane used to manufacture organic sugar do not contain pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. And the good news for vegans is that in the United States, the USDA prohibits the filtering of organic sugar using bone char, so organic sugar is vegan!
The Bottom Line
The best choice for vegans and non-vegans alike is to not consume refined sugar at all. These sugars provide empty calories and lack the natural vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are present in sugar beet or cane. Further, excessive consumption of refined sugar can actually deplete nutrients in the body and ultimately lead to a myriad of health problems.
So the next time you’re baking some delicious treats, remember to make it free of all animal ingredients and preferably use organic sugar or other natural plant based sweeteners like agave nectar, date sugar or maple syrup!