Powdered sugar, also known as confectioners' sugar or icing sugar, is a common ingredient used in baking, desserts, and candy making. Its fine texture makes it ideal for achieving a smooth, silky texture in frostings and glazes. But is powdered sugar actually vegan?
The vegan-friendliness of powdered sugar depends on how it is processed. While the sugar itself comes from plant sources like sugarcane or sugar beets, some manufacturers use bone char, an animal-derived product, to process and filter the sugar. This process makes certain types of powdered sugar unsuitable for vegans.
Understanding Powdered Sugar
Powdered sugar, also referred to as confectioners' sugar or icing sugar, is white granulated sugar that has been ground into a fine powder. It has a light, fluffy texture that makes it ideal for use in:
- Frosting and icing
- Dusting desserts
- Whipping cream
- Candy making
It blends and dissolves more easily than regular granulated sugar. It is also used to balance tart or acidic ingredients in recipes without adding extra liquid.
The main ingredients in powdered sugar are:
- Sugar - Typically from sugarcane or sugar beets. Provides sweetness.
- Cornstarch - Added to prevent clumping and caking. Makes up 3% or less of most powdered sugar.
Some types may also contain anticaking agents like potato starch or tricalcium phosphate. Flavorings and colors may be added as well.
To make powdered sugar, granulated sugar is first milled to break it into smaller particles. It is then combined with cornstarch and run through a mechanical sieve to achieve an ultra-fine texture. The starch absorbs any moisture and keeps the sugar free-flowing.
Why Powdered Sugar May Not Be Vegan
While sugar itself originates from sugarcane or sugar beets, the refining process is where potential animal products may be introduced.
Bone char, also known as natural carbon, is commonly used by the sugar industry as a decolorizing and filtration agent. It is essentially charred cattle bones that have been crushed into a powder.
Sugarcane juice is naturally light brown due to minerals, fibers, and sugars like molasses. Bone char has a high adsorption capacity that binds to these impurities so they can be filtered out.
The result is a clear, purified white sugar product. While bone char is not present in the finished sugar, its use during processing causes ethical concerns for some vegans.
Not all powdered sugar contains bone char though. Whether or not animal products are used depends on:
- Sugar source - Beet sugar does not require bone char for refining.
- Refining method - Some manufacturers use vegan alternatives like granular carbon filters.
- Certifications - Organic sugar cannot contain bone char under USDA standards.
Key Takeaway: Bone char gives refined white sugar its pure color and sweetness by removing impurities like minerals and molasses. However, this makes certain types of refined sugar unsuitable for vegans.
Is Regular Powdered Sugar Vegan?
Regular powdered sugar, made from conventional sugarcane, has a high chance of being processed with bone char.
Major brands like Domino and C&H use bone char for filtration, according to company statements. Smaller brands likely do as well since bone char provides an affordable method of achieving pure white sugar.
Therefore, regular cane sugar powdered sugar should generally be avoided by vegans. Beet sugar powdered sugar, on the other hand, does not require bone char for refining. It provides a good vegan alternative to cane-based powdered sugar.
Organic cane powdered sugar is another reliable vegan option. Under USDA standards, organic sugar cannot be processed with bone char. It must be refined using alternatives like carbon filtration or ion exchange methods.
Is Brown Powdered Sugar Vegan?
Brown powdered sugar is typically made by adding molasses to refined white sugar. This gives it a deeper flavor and color.
But since bone char is commonly used to refine the white cane sugar, most brown powdered sugar is not vegan. The same issue applies to brown sugar made by coating refined white sugar in molasses.
Once again, choosing an organic brown powdered sugar variety is a foolproof way to avoid bone char. Beet sugar brown powdered sugar is another good option.
When in doubt, check with manufacturers to find out their refining methods. Some artisanal and natural sugar brands now produce brown sugar without bone char.
What About Organic Powdered Sugar?
One simple way to ensure your powdered sugar is vegan is to choose organic varieties. Under USDA National Organic Program standards, organic sugar cannot be processed using bone char.
Instead, alternative refining methods must be used, such as:
- Granular carbon filtration
- Ion exchange
So when you see a product labeled as "organic powdered sugar", you can be confident it is vegan. There are many major brands of USDA certified organic powdered sugar on the market today.
Even if organic powdered sugar is made from conventional sugarcane, the refining method makes it suitable for vegans. Going organic provides peace of mind that animal products are avoided.
Key Takeaway: Organic powdered sugar is reliably vegan since USDA standards prohibit the use of bone char for filtration.
Vegan Brands of Powdered Sugar
If you want to avoid doing extensive research into refining methods, selecting a brand that specifies "vegan" on the label is an easy route. Here are some of the most common vegan powdered sugar options:
- Wholesome Sweeteners - Organic, non-GMO, fairly traded
- Florida Crystals - Organic cane sugar
- Domino - Cane sugar from vegan-friendly refineries
- Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value - Cane sugar
- Imperial Sugar - Cane sugar
- Nature's Promise - Cane sugar
- Simple Truth - Cane sugar
- Trader Joe's - Cane sugar
- Zulka - Non-GMO cane sugar
There are also some specialty vegan powdered sugar producers to look for, such as Raw Cane Sugar and Billington's Sugar.
Always check the ingredients list for any additives that could be animal-derived. Cornstarch, for example, is sometimes sourced from GMO corn grown with manure.
How to Make Your Own Vegan Powdered Sugar
Making DIY vegan powdered sugar at home is a simple process requiring just two ingredients:
- Granulated sugar
- Starch (cornstarch, tapioca, or arrowroot) - optional
To make a basic version:
- Add 1 cup granulated sugar to a high-powder blender or food processor. White sugar works best but coconut sugar or turbinado sugar can be substituted.
- Blend on high speed until a super fine powder is achieved, about 2-3 minutes. Stop to scrape down sides as needed.
- Sift the powdered sugar through a fine mesh sieve to remove any clumps.
- Store in an airtight container. Keeps for 2-3 months.
For powdered sugar with anti-caking properties:
- Add 1 tbsp starch for every 1 cup of granulated sugar. Arrowroot or tapioca starch are vegan-friendly.
- Blend and sift as instructed above. The starch will help prevent clumping.
Be sure to use vegan granulated sugar that has not been processed with bone char. Organic, beet, coconut, and turbinado sugar all work well.
Making your own allows you to control the ingredients and avoid animal products. You can make flavored versions by adding vanilla, citrus zest, spices, etc.
Vegan Powdered Sugar Substitutes
Aside from vegan refined powdered sugar, there are also some healthy whole food substitutes:
- Coconut sugar - Has a caramel flavor.
- Date sugar - Made from dehydrated dates.
- Maple sugar - Evaporated maple syrup.
- Monk fruit powder - Zero-calorie natural sweetener.
- Stevia powder - Herbal sweetener, no aftertaste.
- Xylitol - Sugar alcohol from birch trees.
Coconut, date, and maple sugar can typically be substituted 1:1 for recipes. Limit monk fruit, stevia, and xylitol to 25-30% of the sweetener amount to avoid overpowering other flavors.
Health and Environmental Impacts
Aside from animal welfare concerns, there are a few other downsides to consider regarding conventional powdered sugar:
Nutrition - Like other refined sugars, powdered sugar is high in calories and provides little nutritional value. It can contribute to chronic diseases when over-consumed.
Pesticides - Conventional sugarcane is heavily treated with pesticides and chemicals. These can remain as residues on non-organic sugar.
Sustainability - Sugarcane production is water-intensive and linked to deforestation in some regions. Organic and small-scale production have less impact.
Working conditions - Bone char often comes from countries with poor regulation of working conditions in slaughterhouses. Choosing vegan alternatives supports more ethical labor practices.
While moderate amounts of vegan powdered sugar are generally not detrimental for the average person, there are valid ethical, environmental, and health reasons some may choose to limit or avoid it when possible.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is powdered sugar not vegan?
Some powdered sugar contains or is processed with bone char, an animal-derived product made from charred cattle bones. Beet sugar and organic cane sugar powdered sugar are reliably vegan, however.
Does powdered sugar have dairy?
Powdered sugar does not naturally contain any dairy ingredients like milk or cream. Some flavors may contain dairy, but plain powdered sugar is dairy-free.
Is beet sugar better for the environment?
Beet sugar has a lower environmental impact than cane sugar overall. Beet crops use less water, release less CO2, and have lower rates of pesticide application.
Is bone char safe to eat?
Bone char itself is not present in finished sugar, so there are no health or food safety risks. It simply acts as a filtration medium to absorb impurities.
Does sugar really get whitened with bones?
Yes, bone char from cattle bones has been widely used in sugar refining as an affordable bleaching agent. However, some brands now use vegan methods.
Powdered sugar provides a convenient way to add sweetness and texture to foods like frosting, candy, and confections. While traditional cane powdered sugar may contain traces of animal bone char, there are several ways vegans can avoid this hidden additive.
Opting for beet, organic, or DIY vegan powdered sugar ensures your treats stay animal-cruelty free. Taking your ethics into account when buying sweets is a delicious way to make compassionate choices.