Vegan Sugar and Other Natural Sweetener Options
Sugar comes from a plant… so isn’t all sugar vegan? Not exactly. Learn what makes sugar classified as “vegan” and explore other plant-based sweetener options.
Vegan sugar is classified as “vegan” because it doesn’t use animal bones (bone char) to filter the impurities. YUCK! Many white and brown sugars do use bone char in processing. Look for sugar labeled as “organic” or “vegan” to know you’re eating cruelty-free sugar. (Organic sugar cannot use animal bones or chemicals to bleach and filter the sugar.)
Can’t find vegan sugar in your area? Here’s a list of sugar alternatives:
Evaporated cane juice is the most unrefined sugar. It is the juice that is extracted from the pressed sugarcane and then crystalized. Its flavor is deeper than white sugar and has a hint of a molasses flavor. Since it is unrefined, evaporated cane juice retains some important vitamins such as riboflavin and Vitamin B, as well as amino acids and fiber. It is automatically vegan because it will not be filtered through animal bones.
Blackstrap molasses is the thick, dark liquid that remains after the sugar has been extracted from the raw sugar cane plant and the sugar syrup has been boiled three times. Molasses is commonly thought of as a nutritious sweetener because it contains less calories per tablespoon than traditional white sugar and it also contains significant amounts of vitamin B6 and minerals. Just one tablespoon of molasses provides up to 20% of the recommended daily value of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and B6! Molasses has a strong flavor and so is not commonly used alone as a sweetener. However, it is commonly used as an ingredient in tangy BBQ sauces and baked good recipes.
Other plant-based sweeteners include sugars from dates, stevia, coconut sap and maple sap.
Date sugar or date paste is an excellent whole food sweetener option. It is made by combining whole, ripe dates with water to make a date paste. Date paste is a good substitute for agave or honey but you’ll have to use about 50% more because it’s not quite as sweet. Dates contain minerals like Ash, Calcium, Iron, Phosphorus, Potassium, Vitamin A, Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Tryptophan and Vitamin C. It can be substituted 1:1 for any baked goods recipe that calls for brown sugar.
Cocount sugar is a low glycemic sweetener option (Glycemic Index 35). It’s made from the flower of the coconut tree (the part that would eventually become the coconut fruit). The sap contained within the coconut flower is collected and the liquid is evaporated to create coconut sugar. Coconut sugar is mineral rich; it contains magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc, and vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, C and 17 amino acids.
Maple sugar is made by boiling the sap from maple trees until all the liquid disappears. It contains trace minerals such as calcium, potassium, zinc and manganese. It has a similar caloric value as sugar but has more trace minerals. Some say that maple sugar is sweeter then sugar from the sugarcane plant. You’ll want to test in baked goods to find the correct balance.
Stevia is a “sugar” that was used by the indigeneous peoples of Latin America because the leaves are sweeter than sugar and are low glycemic. Stevia extract is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, low calorie and actually has an alkalizing effect on the body. It is recommended to use whole leaf stevia if possible, as it is less processed. The stevia website has good information that discusses stevia’s benefits as a low calorie sweetener. Stevia has about the same sweetness level as aspartame or saccharin but without the same health risks.
And finally we have the liquid sweeteners or syrups that come from plants such as agave, yacon, barley and brown rice.
Agave nectar is a low glycemic sweetener that comes from the Blue Agave plant. The sap is extracted from the agave plant and boiled to make the nectar, similar to the process used to create maple syrup. Agave dissolves quickly and therefore is a good option to use in cold drinks. Agave is also commonly used in baked goods. Please note that it is sweeter than sugar and not quite as thick as honey, so you may need to adjust your recipes accordingly.
Yacon syrup is made from the roots of the Yacon plant and is similar in texture to maple syrup. Yacon syrup was used by the ancient Incas and been getting publicity in our modern society because of its low glycemic effect that doesn’t cause the body’s insulin levels to spike. It has a heavier taste then our modern white sugar and tastes more similar to molasses.
Brown rice syrup is produced by steeping brown rice with barley malt in a process that transforms the starch into sugar and creates a syrup. Some consider it to be one of the healthiest sweeteners on the market because it is made from a whole food source and contains simple sugars. Brown rice syrup has the consistency of honey and isn’t quite as sweet as sugar, so you won’t be able to make a 1:1 substitution. It also has a distinct caramel-like flavor, so it’s best to test a recipe with brown rice syrup before making for a special occasion. If you find the flavor overpowering in a recipe, you may want to combine with another sweetener.
Barley Malt syrup is made from spouted barley grains that are dried and then slowly cooked to create a sweet, dark syrup. Barley malt syrup is about half as sweet as sugar, so you may need to use more in a recipe to achieve the same sweetness as sugar. Barley malt syrup is also considered to be a lower glycemic option than traditional white sugar. It has a strong flavor similar to molasses, so you’ll want to test it in a recipe prior to serving for an event or company. If you find the flavor to be too strong, you may want to mix with another sweetener.
This article is not intended to give health information. For more information about sweeteners and their impact on your health and diet, speak with a nutritionist.
Rebecca Gilbert is the founder of Yummy Plants and the author of It’s Easy to Start Eating Vegan. She’s a former competitive figure skater whose switch to a vegan diet healed her chronic joint pain. Rebecca has been a featured speaker at events including the World VegFestival in San Francisco, Vegetarian Summerfest, the New York City Vegetarian Food Festival, and Paris Vegan Day. She has presented on live television and given corporate talks about healthy eating. Book Rebecca to speak at your organization.