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Sugar and other sweeteners in the USA: do they contain animal products?
This article originally appeared in the Vegetarian Journal Mar/Apr 97. Reproduced with the permission of the Vegetarian Resource Group
IVU News 2-97

Refined Sugar

Refined sugar is avoided by some vegetarians because its processing may involve a bone char filter. An activated carbon filter, sometimes made of bone char, decolourises sugar to make it white through an absorption process. While the bone char filter is used by some major sugar companies, it is not used to produce all refined sugar.

The two major types of refined sugar produced in the United States are beet sugar and cane sugar. Cane sugar is mainly grown in Florida, California, Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas. Beet sugar is grown in states located in the middle part of the U.S. Much sugar cane is actually imported.

According to beet sugar producers, beet and cane sugar are nutritionally equivalent and one cannot usually taste any difference between them. They are both composed of sucrose. The production and sale of each type of sugar are approximately equal (1).

Beet sugar refineries never use a bone char filter in processing because this type of sugar does not require an extensive decolourising procedure. Beet sugar can be refined with a pressure lead filter and an ion exchange system. Beet sugar is popular in the Midwest because it is grown in this area. It is often labeled granulated sugar. Beet sugar is becoming more prevalent in the United States because the federal Government subsidises this industry.

Almost all cane sugar refineries require the use of a specific filter to decolourise the sugar and absorb inorganic material from it. This whitening process occurs towards the end of the sugar refining procedure. The filter may be either bone char, granulated carbon, or an ion exchange system. The granular carbon has a wood or coal base, and the ion exchange does not require the use of any animal products (2).

Bones from cows are the only type used to make bone char. According to the Sugar Association and several large sugar producers, all of the cows have died of natural causes and do not come from the U.S. meat industry. Bone char cannot be produced or bought in the United States (3).

Bone char is derived from the bones of cattle from Afghanistan, Argentina, India and Pakistan. The sun-bleached bones are bought by Scottish, Brazilian, and Egyptian marketers, who sell them to the U.S. sugar industry after the bones are first used by the gelatin industry (4).

Bone is heated to an extremely high temperature, which results in a physical change in the bones composition. The bone becomes pure carbon before it is used in a refinery. Refined sugar does not contain any bone particles and is therefore kosher certified. The bone char simply removes impurities from the sugar, but does not become a part of the sugar.

Individual pieces of bone char, like granular carbon, can be used for several years. They must be continuously washed to remove the sugar deposits. Companies that use bone char claim that the char is more economically feasible and efficient than other types of filter (4). Many cane refineries use bone char. Domino, the largest sugar manufacturer in the U.S., uses bone char in the filtration process. The cane refineries of Savannah Foods, the second largest sugar manufacturer, also use bone char. California and Hawaian Sugar employs bone char filters in addition to granular carbon and ion exchange filters. All these companies use the bone char in the refining process of brown sugar, powdered sugar (sugar mixed with corn starch) and white sugar.

Some cane refineries do not use bone char. Refined Sugar, producers of Jack Frost Sugar, claim to use a granular carbon instead of bone char for economic reasons. Florida Crystal sugar is a cane sugar which has not passed through the bone. Although Florida Crystals sugar has a straw colour, the impurities have been removed.

Some labels on sugar packages seem to indicate that the product is raw sugar, but all commercial sugar has undergone some refining. Genuine raw sugar cannot be bought and sold to the general consumer in the United States according to Food and Drug Administration regulations, as it is unfit for human consumption.

Turbinado sugar is a product which is made by separating raw cane sugar crystals in a centrifuge and washing them with steam. According to Domino Sugar, turbinado sugar does not pass through a bone char filter because its brown colour is desirable.

Refining sugar involves a series of steps, including clarification and an initial step where sugar syrup is added. The clarifying agents are calcium hydroxide, phosphoric acid and polyacrylomite. The sugar used in the initial syrup is an intermediate raw sugar which has not yet gone through the bone char filter.

If your sole reason for not consuming refined sugar is because of the use of bone char, then you should consider buying sugar which has not passed through the char. Refined beet sugar, which never involves bone char, is often labeled fine granular sugar. C & H produces one sugar which has not gone through the bone char. It is labeled washed raw sugar. Cane sugar, which sometimes uses bone char, is distinguished as cane sugar on the package.


One of the by-products of sugar refining is molasses. Molasses that is consumed by humans is derived only from cane sugar. Some molasses is produced by directly boiling the sugar cane.

Many different grades of molasses correspond with the flavour and level of processing of molasses. Blackstrap molasses is the lowest grade of molasses available because of its dark bitter qualities. All the molasses in graded foods is unsulphured (6).

Beet sugar molasses is not fit for human consumption because it is too bitter. Beet sugar molasses is fed to dairy cows and cattle. The syrup is added to their food to make it taste sweeter. The beet molasses is also sold to yeast-making industries (1).

The molasses syrup that is consumed by humans has not gone through any bone char or carbon filter. About 95 per cent. of the molasses is removed before the sugar travels through the bone char or carbon filter. Any molasses which has gone through the char is used in animal feed or for fermentation purposes. Molasses companies often buy their initial product from sugar refineries and then further refine the syrup. They do not use any type of char filter because they do not desire to eliminate the brown colour (5). Brown sugar is basically refined sugar with added molasses. The brown sugar produced by the beet industry uses cane molasses, but this molasses has not gone through the bone char. Cane sugar companies which use bone char will utilise bone char to refine brown sugar (6).

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is another sweetener which may sometimes be a concern to vegans. The process of making maple syrup requires an agent to reduce the foam on the syrup by adding a small amount of fat to the liquid.

The traditional process of reducing the foam in maple syrup has included the use of lard. Previously, local producers would hang pork fat over a tub of maple syrup and let drops of fat drip into the syrup. Others used milk, cream or butter. If animal products are used in the form of lard or milk, the amount is minute. For example, eight to ten gallons of syrup will involve a quarter of a teaspoon of cream or a pea-sized drop of butter. Vegetable oil is a common defoaming agent. It can be applied to the end of a wooden stick and dipped into the foaming part of the maple syrup. Most manufacturers of maple syrup now use vegetable oil or synthetic defoamers instead of lard.

One commercial defoamer (called Atmos 300K) is composed of monoglycerides and diglycerides. According to WITCO, the producer of this defoamer, these glycerides are derived from edible meat and/or vegetable sources. Another leading brand of defoamer, Reynolds Magic Syrup Defoamer, also contains acetylated monoglycerides as an ingredient (7).

Well known brands of pancake maple syrups, such as Mrs. Butterworths or Log Cabin, usually contain only 2 to 5 per cent. maple syrup. Corn syrup is the main ingredient of most pancake syrups. Pure maple syrup will have a grade label and state 100 per cent. Pure Maple Syrup (8).

It may be difficult to determine whether a particular brand of syrup has an animal or vegetable-based defoamer. Most syrups do not use lard, with the exception of certain small-scale products. Brands which are kosher certified, such as Spring Tree or Maple Groves, are unlikely to contain animal products in their defoamers. Holsum Foods, who produce pancake syrup, also use vegetable oil as a defoaming agent, and their product is labeled by food chains such as Dominicks, Supervalue and Superfine.

Caramel colour

Caramel colour is not a flavour; it is a food colouring agent. Caramel colour is used in almost any product that is brown. The top two consumers of the colour are Coca Cola and Pepsi. It is also used in rye and pumpernickel bread, cereal, iced tea, syrup, dog food and pancake mixes.

Caramel colour is based on a carbohydrate raw material. Most producers of caramel colour prefer to use glucose syruvp as the initial carbohydrate. Glucose syrup is almost pure dextrose. While U.S. glucose syrup is usually corn syrup, it can also be derived from potatoes, wheat or other sources. Caramel colour has no animal-derived components. Although lactose (a milk sugar) is one of the permitted raw carbohydrate reactants, we are told by Sethness, the worlds largest caramel colour company, that lactose is not used by any caramel colour producer in the world. Almost all industries begin the process with glucose syrup. Caramel colour is exempt from government certification, which means that it is an approved food ingredient that can be added to foods without obtaining government permission. The initial carbohydrate reacts with chemicals such as food-grade acids, alkalies and salts. It is then heated to a high temperature, put under high pressure, and then processed to burn. The resulting product is a burnt-coloured liquid which has a high level of colouring power. For example, according to a caramel colour technician, teaspoon of caramel colour would be used in a bottle of Pepsi.

Refined beet or cane sugar can be used to make caramel colour, but it is not the preferred method. The only time sugar is used is Passover, when Jewish laws do not permit the use of corn syrup. Products containing caramel colour derived from refined sugar would be labeled as such (9).


  1. Western Sugar, personal interview July 1996.
  2. Refined Sugar Inc., personal interview July 1996.
  3. The Sugar Association, personal interview July 1996.
  4. Domino Sugar, personal interview July 1996.
  5. Malt Products, personal interview July 1996.
  6. California and Hawaiian Sugar, personal interview July 1996.
  7. Richards of Ohio (maple), personal interview July 1996.
  8. Proctor Maple Research Centre, personal interview July 1996.
  9. Sethness, personal interview July 1996.
- Caroline Pyevich

[Caroline wrote this article while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group, publishers of the Vegetarian Journal in which this article originally appeared.] VRG Website address:

The following appeared in a subsequent issue of Vegetarian Journal:

Editor's note: In the March/April 1997 issue of Vegetarian Journal, we printed an article on sugar and other sweetners. In that article we stated that beet sugar is often labeled "Granulated Sugar" or "fine granular sugar." We also stated that cane sugar is distinguished as "cane sugar" on the package. While these statements are true, they may be misleading to some readers. Because of misinterpretations of these statements, we contacted several sugar manufacturers to clarify the issues. This is what Domino Sugar Corp., Savannah Foods & Industries, Inc., California & Hawaiian Sugar Co., and Florida Crystal Co. said: The terms "Granular Sugar" and "fine granular sugar" may apply to sugar derived from either beets or sugar cane. The processing of sugar cane, but not sugar beets, often involves decolorization by cow bone char. Secondly, there is no legal requirement that the source of the sugar appear on the label. "Sugar" is sufficient. The manufacturer must be contacted in order to determine the source and the processing method. We can say, however, that beet sugar is more popular in the midwest (where the beets are grown) than elsewhere in the United States."

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