Is Sugar Vegan?

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Down to Earth Advice from Four All American Vegans

We are typical American family: Mom and Dad, teenaged daughter and son. We live in the burbs. We drive a mini-van. We eat white bread, love baseball and a good barbeque on the Fourth of July. To look at us, you’d never suspect that we are vegan, and that’s just the way we like it. Why? Because we are living proof that the stereotypes so often associated with veganism just aren’t true. Not only can you be a vegan and relate to the average American, you can be the kind of vegan the average American can relate to as well.

Contrary to the images that come to mind when most people hear the word “vegan,” we aren’t health food nuts. We aren’t obsessed with Omega 3s or “gluten free” and we couldn’t care less what grains ancient people used to eat. We don’t visit Ayurvedic or homeopathic “healers.” We aren’t Hare Krishna or Buddhists. We are typical Americans who have made the simple choice to swear off eggs, meat and dairy products, and to consume the abundantly available alternatives to those foods instead. In fact, if you peeked inside our house while we are eating dinner you might not be able to tell we are vegan by looking at our food, either. Our meals look the same as those most Americans eat and in many cases taste very similar, but they are made with alternatives to animal ingredients instead of real ones. We eat hot dogs and hamburgers with French fries, fried “chicken” with mashed potatoes and gravy and BBQ ribs with cornbread and coleslaw. For dessert, we enjoy cookies, cupcakes, jello and, of course, apple pie a la mode.

As long time vegans, the authors of a vegan cookbook and the parents of two vegan-since-birth kids (our daughter, Riley is 16, our son, Willoughby, is 12), we are asked a lot of questions about being vegan. Some of them are simple questions about vegan products, such as “Are there any vegan chewing gums?” or “Do you have any recommendations for a good egg replacer?” Others involve social issues pertaining to veganism such as “How do you handle holidays with non-vegan family members?” or “How do you respond when friends or family are unsupportive of your choice to raise your kids as vegans?” Because some of these issues are common ones, we decided to make our answers public, to start a “Ask a Vegan” column to post our answers to these and other common questions we are asked and to encourage the submission of others.

Is there something about veganism you’ve always wanted to know but didn’t know who to ask? Have you been researching veganism and have questions about it, but are feeling a bit overwhelmed or intimidated by all the dogma unrelated to veganism that is so often associated with it, such as having to swear off processed foods, white flour or sweeteners that don’t meet someone’s preferred glycemic index? If so, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll keep it simple. We’ll keep it convenient. We’ll keep it ethical. And we promise to never, ever scold you for loving your food deep fried or covered with a sugary glaze. In fact, we’ve only got five rules: 1. No meat, 2. No dairy, 3. No eggs, 4. No honey, and 5. There are no other rules.

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For us, being vegan is simple, delicious and more convenient than ever before, and we want to help you feel the same way about it, too. We’re happy to help, so please, don’t hesitate to ask!

Here’s a question about sugar:

My husband and I are vegan and we have been raising our 2 yr old daughter vegan as well. Thank you for writing about all of this! I wanted to ask: how do you handle sugar? I have read that it’s only vegan if you use “organic sugar” otherwise they use bone char. What have you found out about this/do you have a blog entry by chance about this? This is one area that I find particularly frustrating… so far our daughter doesn’t eat a lot of sugar and if she has something I make it so it’s ok. But eventually she’ll want things like Red Vines or other candy and I don’t know what to do. Any advice?

It’s always wonderful to hear from other parents who are raising vegan kids, too, so thanks for contacting us and we’re happy to share how we approach the issue of sugar and candy. As we discuss in a section of our cookbook called “The Devil Is in the Details,” sugar refined with bone char is one of the most common problematic ingredients in food. In short, bone char, or bone black as it is called, is used to filter natural cane sugar so that the final product is white. Liquefied sugar is passed through giant filters containing the charcoaled bones of cows which capture the elements of natural cane sugar that would otherwise make the sugar blond instead of white. However, although the sugar comes into contact with the bones, no bones make it into the final product.

Some vegans argue that because there are no actual animal ingredients in the final product of sugar, it is therefore vegan. We think this misses the point of being vegan for ethical reasons, which is not to be “pure” but to avoid creating a demand for products which harm animals, in this case, the filters filled with cow bones that must periodically be replaced at the sugar refinery. That is why as a family, we avoid bone char sugar. We do not buy items that list “sugar” as an ingredient unless that sugar is organic, evaporated cane juice or listed as beet sugar because those sugars are made without the use of bone char. CLICK HERE for an article that discusses this issue in great detail, including a list of which brands of sugar sold in the U.S. are vegan, or bone char processing free.

Does that mean we never buy a product listed as containing sugar? No. We often contact the company to ask for clarification. For instance, Earth Balance just came out with new vegan white cheddar popcorn. But since it is not organic and “sugar” is listed as an ingredient, we contacted the company for more information. Customer service assured us that the sugar was non bone char. Last Halloween, we wanted to make candy apples and our recipe called for cinnamon candies. Again, we wrote Brach’s about theirs, and after doing a little research on the issue, Brach’s customer service assured us that the sugar used in their hard cinnamon disks is vegan. So just because an ingredient list contains the word “sugar” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bone char. You can always ask the company for more info. The good news is that more and more companies seem to be getting the message as we have been surprised and delighted several times over the past year to discover companies making this distinction on their ingredients label by writing “non-bone-char” or simply “vegan” after the sugar is listed. Hopefully it is trend that will continue and grow.

As for your daughter, rest assured you can easily avoid bone char sugar and still find candies that will delight her. Red Vines is one vegan candy you can find at most grocery and drug stores, while the candy aisle at a natural foods store is also a great place to find vegan candies, including our favorites: Go Max Go’s line of vegan candy bars which mimic the nation’s best selling candy bars in a vegan version (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Three Musketeers, Milky Way, Almond Joy, Snickers and Butterfinger), Newman’s Licorice, Earth Bars candy bars, Annie’s Organic Fruit Snacks (really, gummy bunnies), Surf Sweets brand Fruity Bears, Gummy Swirls, Sour Berry Bears, Sour Worms and Fruity Hearts and Yummy Earth’s Organic Lollipops.

Although you can usually find these or other vegan, bone-char free sugar candies at most natural food stores, when it comes to special occasions, we go above and beyond. For holidays or traditions that are generally associated with iconic items that are generally not vegan, such as Christmas candy canes, chocolate Santas, Easter marshmallow peeps or Halloween candy corn, we can usually find such items available on the internet in vegan (bone char-free) versions to surprise our kids. Our favorite internet stops for these foods are veganessentials.com, veganstore.com and the naturalcandycompany.com (candies listed as vegan are bone char-free). Every Halloween, Christmas and Easter, we post a tour of the latest and best holiday candies.

Although, as the cliché goes, it seems like only yesterday that our kids were the age your daughter is now, the truth is we’ve been at this vegan parenting business for nearly 17 years and we can honestly say it’s a piece of cake. Kids have a natural love and empathy for animals and if you explain why you avoid certain foods and then provide an uncompromising model of compassionate eating, they will follow, and embrace, your lead. We also make it a point to provide our kids vegan versions of popular foods whenever possible so our kids understand that being vegan means making foods differently, not necessarily going without. Of course, it is a great thing to raise your kids vegan from birth because they don’t miss what they never had, and, in fact, we’ve found that quite the opposite is true. Our kids not only don’t want to eat animals because it is cruel, they find the thought of eating animals, eggs or drinking milk disgusting. And, of course, you can never go wrong by sweetening the deal with a little vegan candy as well!

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© 2017 Nathan & Jennifer Winograd

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