Many foods you might expect to be vegan — from bagels to wine — aren't always free of animal products, and that includes sugar.

sugar beetsRefined sugar is made from either sugar beets (pictured right) or sugarcane, and while the two taste and look the same, their refining process is different.

To make sugar from sugar beets, the juice is removed with a diffuser and mixed with additives that make it crystallize.

However, when the juice from sugarcane (pictured below) is separated from the pulp, it's heated until it crystallizes and then filtered with bone char to remove impurities, giving sugar its white color.

sugarcaneBone char comes from animal bones — mostly pelvic bones from cows. The bones are ground and heated to high temperatures, reducing them to carbon, which is used in sugar refineries.

Sugar that's filtered with bone char doesn't actually contain bone char particles; however, it does come into contact with it, making it not vegan.

But not all cane sugar is refined with bone char. Some companies use alternatives like granular carbon, which doesn't contain animal products.

How to find vegan sugar

If you want to avoid sugar refined with bone char, opt for beet sugar, but keep in mind that these two sugars aren't exactly alike.

Because sugar beets are a root and sugarcane is a plant, there are trace differences in minerals and proteins, causing them to perform differently in the kitchen.

Another option to avoid bone char is to purchase certified USDA organic sugar. Bone char isn't on the USDA’s National Organic Program List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances, so the sugar can't be filtered through it.

"Unrefined," "raw," 'beet" and "evaporated cane juice" are other phrases that indicate bone char wasn't used.

You can also look for these terms when purchasing other types of sugar — such as brown sugar and confectioner's sugar — because they're often made from refined white sugar.

However, it's difficult to know what type of sugar is used in prepackaged or processed foods, and the Vegetarian Resource Group (VGR) cautions that contacting the manufacturer might not always be useful because many purchase sugar made from both sugar beets and sugarcane.

"Common practice at many manufacturers is to store refined sugar from both sources in the same bin, thereby co-mingling the two," Jeffrey Robinson, technical director of American Sugar Refining told VGR.

If you'd like to purchase sugar that's free of bone char, PETA maintains a list of companies that produce vegan sugar.

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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

Laura Moss writes about a variety of topics with a focus on animals, science, language and culture. But she mostly writes about cats.

How do you know if your sugar is vegan?
Refined sugar is often filtered with bone char from cows, but there are alternatives. Here's what you need to know.