Warning: Your Table Sugar May Not Be Vegan

Sam Westreich, PhD

Sorry, vegans, no cake for you — it’s made with animal… charcoal??

Pictured: probably not vegan, because it contains sugar. Also, marshmallows aren’t vegan either. Double whammy.Photo byPhoto by quokkabottles on UnsplashonUnsplash

Table of Contents

· Bone char, because burning the bones frees the soul of the cow
· How much bone char does it take to make sugar?
· How widely is bone char used? Is it in all sugar?
· Does it even matter?
· In summary: lots of sugar is filtered through burnt bones

Here’s a bold statement: we should all be trying to eat less meat and/or animal products in our diet. Meat is tasty but low in fiber and high in saturated fats, and both of those things are bad for you. The average American eats about 274 pounds of meat per year — and that’s not even including seafood.

Eating less meat doesn’t mean, however, that you need to become a full vegan — which is a good thing, because veganism is hard. There’s animal products in some strange foods, like:

  • Bananas (spray-on crab shell chitin to fend off insects)
  • Some beer (occasionally uses fish gelatin)
  • Chocolate (often contains milk)
  • Fake meat (commonly uses egg whites)
  • Fortified orange juice (the vitamins come from wool or fish oil)

But here’s an especially strange food you may have to avoid if you’re committing fully to veganism: white sugar.

That’s right. Some white sugar is vegan, but a lot of it isn’t. And it’s not because it explicitly contains animal products, but instead because an animal product — burnt bones — is used in preparing it.

Let’s talk about bone char.

Bone char, because burning the bones frees the soul of the cow

Bone char is exactly what it sounds like: charcoal made from burnt animal bones.

Specifically, it’s made from cattle and pig bones, although the skull and spinal cord are excluded to reduce chances of spreading prion-based diseases like mad cow disease. The bones are heated to nearly 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit in a sealed vessel to prevent oxygen exposure, leaving a mixture of tricalcium phosphate, calcium carbonate, and carbon.

This charcoal product has a number of uses:

  • Water treatment: it removes fluoride and metal ions from water.
  • Black pigment in artists’ paint.
  • Refining crude oil to produce petroleum jelly.
  • Sugar refining, to remove both color and various inorganic impurities, importantly sulfates and the ions of magnesium and calcium.

Not all sugar is refined with bone char, as other alternatives, such as activated carbon or resins, may be used in its place.

How much bone char does it take to make sugar?

Let’s start with a bovine.

One cow has about 82 pounds of bone, on average, but not all of those bones are turned to char. Only the large, weight-supporting bones are used, and about half the weight of those bones are lost when they are converted to charcoal. Multiply it all out, and one cow will yield about 9 pounds of char.

At a commercial sugar processing plant, the filters are huge, sometimes taking 70,000 pounds of char to fill! They’ll last for 5–10 years before they need to be replaced.

Numbers vary widely, but one estimate suggests that a filter column produces about 30 gallons of sugar per minute, for 120 hours. That works out to around 216,000 gallons of sugar, or about 1,522,800 pounds of sugar. Divide it out, and you get roughly 21.7 pounds of sugar for each pound of bone char used.

In comparison, the average American individual consumes about 60 pounds of added sugar in their diet per year. So, one cow ends up filtering enough sugar for 3 Americans’ yearly sugar consumption.

How widely is bone char used? Is it in all sugar?

It’s hard to get a clear answer as to how common the use of bone char is, these days. A 2007 report indicated that bone char was still the most commonly used filtration substrate in most sugar refining plants. Europe has stronger regulations on what sources of bone char may be used, meaning that it’s less common at European refining plants — but the sugar output from multiple refineries may be mixed together before a final product is placed on shelves.

Perhaps a better solution, if you’re interested in avoiding any hint of animal usage in your baking products, is to look at the source of the sugar. Sugar from sugarcane needs to be filtered, but sugar produced from sugar beets does not need the same filtration.

Don’t rely on the color of the sugar; brown sugar is commonly made from adding molasses to white sugar, meaning that the sugar was white before it was changed back to brown.

Sugar types that won’t have any bone char used in their production:

  • Beet sugar
  • Organic sugar, either 95% or 100% organic.

(What’s the difference? 95% organic sugar uses synthetic lime to remove debris from the sugar, which prevents being classified as 100% organic.)

Does it even matter?

Remember: the bone char is being used as a filtration agent, but it’s not ending up in the actual sugar product. The sugar itself does not contain any little bits of burnt animal bones.

It depends on how strictly you want to stick to principles of veganism. Although I’m a little weirded out by the use of charred animal bones in the production of table sugar, it’s not going to be the primary factor I avoid it. (Instead, that’s probably going to be due to the unhealthy nature of sugar, both for us and for our gut microbiome.)

Additionally, at least bone char is making use of a part of the animal that might otherwise be discarded. Cattle are not being killed primarily for their bones, so this isn’t going to be driving cattle production.

Overall, sugar cane is probably worse for the environment than sugar beets are (sugar cane fields are routinely burned, it consumes large amounts of water, and there’s a lot of destruction of natural habitat to gain land for sugar cane plantations), so perhaps the best move is to focus on sugar from beets. Less environmental impact, and also no bone char needed.

In summary: lots of sugar is filtered through burnt bones

We’ve found innovative ways to make use of nearly every part of the millions of reared and slaughtered cattle and pigs. The bones are no exception; they’re often burnt to make charcoal, which can be used as a filtration agent.

That filtration is commonly put to use on the sugar extracted from sugar cane, which contains ash, discoloration, and other compounds that need to be filtered out. The bone char filtration helps yield white table sugar (and brown sugar, when we add molasses back in).

Not all sugar is filtered with bone char, so if you want to make sure that you minimize the amount of animal pain that was involved at any step with your food, opt for beet sugar or organic sugar.


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A microbiome scientist working at a tech startup in Silicon Valley, Sam Westreich provides insights into science and technology, exploring the strangest areas of biology, science, and biotechnology.

Mountain View, CA

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