Vegan sugars are easy to find at almost all grocery stores, and especially at health food stores, and you have a variety of options about types and flavors of sugar that will make your vegan baking a cinch.
There are also many alternatives to straight sugar that are more healthful and wholesome than the white variety, and I don't mean the yellow, pink, or blue packages you find at restaurants.
How vegan are you?
Sugar is one of those touchy subjects among vegan circles because the line between what's vegan and what's not is easily blurred. For instance, when a marketer sells "vegan sugar," they are saying that it has never been processed with non-vegan ingredients. But, just because it isn't labeled as vegan doesn't mean it isn't vegan.
White sugar is either made from beet sugar or sugarcane; they both taste nearly identical and when you buy a package of sugar, you have about a 50-50 chance of getting one or the other. If you get beet sugar, you're eating a vegan product because beet sugar doesn't need to be refined.
On the other hand, if that white sugar is made from sugarcane, you have about a 50-50 chance of it being made in a non-vegan way. During the final processing stage, sugar refineries will take sugarcane and filter it through charcoal. Just about half of the refineries in the United States use animal bone char for that charcoal. The remaining refineries use either vegetable or mineral based charcoal.
Some vegans are very strict about not eating anything that is ever processed with animal sources, and others are slightly more lenient. You have to decide for yourself where you set the line.
If you are simply looking to follow a vegan diet, there are plenty of vegan sugar substitutes, and you can stop right there. But, many people are also interested in finding more natural, wholesome, or less processed vegan sugars.
While you're going to be hard pressed to find a truly healthy sugar, there are a few options with lower glycemic indexes and higher mineral content than plain, stripped, white sugar.
There is some discrepancy about the health value of raw sugar, and in some cases, it’s simply white sugar that is colored. However, if you can find unrefined sugar, you are typically doing better than any refined white sugar.
Many vegans opt for dehydrated cane juice or unbleached cane sugar, which doesn't go through a refining stage and is therefore 100% vegan. For most of my baking needs, I'll pick one of the varieties of raw cane sugar, including demerara, muscavado, turbinado, panela, and sucanat.
Some people like to buy raw beet sugar to be 100% certain they are getting unfiltered vegan sugar, but there are also reports of it being highly genetically modified, so you will have to check the source before using it. If you look for organic versions, they can't be genetically modified. Beet sugar comes from sugar beets, and it makes a nice alternative for anyone who is allergic to cane sugar.
There is no noticeable difference in the flavor of beet sugar as compared to cane sugar, and so it can be used in any baking.
Coconut sugar is my current sugar of choice. It's a dark brown color and has a nutty, intense flavor but much less sweetness than typical cane sugar. It has a glycemic index of 35, whereas white sugar gets about a 60, so coconut sugar will not give you the same radical shift in angry levels.
Date sugar is made entirely from dates and makes for a healthy alternative to any sugars. Its main sugar is fructose, so you can use less of it than cane sugar in your vegan baking.
You can also use whole, pitted dates to sweeten anything. I use them often in raw vegan desserts.
Maple sugar is made from 100% pure maple syrup and tastes amazing. It has a really strong sweetness to it, so you only need to use about 2/3 cup maple sugar for each 1 cup of regular sugar in a recipe. I find it to be a little pricey, but you get what you pay for.
Fructose is the main sugar in fruits. It's sweeter than sucrose, the main sugar in regular cane sugar, so you can get away with using less of it, therefore consuming fewer calories. You can use about 1/2 cup of fructose granules for every 1 cup of regular sugar called for in the recipe.
Palm sugar comes from coconut palm trees. It has a lower glycemic index than sucrose and fructose, so it won't spike your blood sugar as easily. It also has a slightly different flavor than regular white sugar, much more like brown sugar. Palm sugar is traditional in Indian cuisine, and many people rave about the flavor.
My main concern with it is that it's not environmentally sustainable at all and the destruction of palm trees is killing chimpanzees and other animals- I like to stay away from heart of palm, palm oil, and palm sugar.
Stevia has a very low glycemic index and has vitamins and minerals. There are some built-in health benefits with stevia such as anti-inflammatory relief, lowering of cholesterol, and bowel movement regulation.
One of the new kids on the sugar block is xylitol, which is made from birch tree bark or other plants (most often corn) and is therefore a natural vegan sugar. It is a strong sweetener, so you can use less of it than a recipe might call for in white sugar.
It's receiving acclaim right now as a dental enhancement because some studies show it can help prevent and possibly cure cavities and other dental problems. I had my first indication of an adult cavity a few years ago and I started chewing vegan xylitol gum and using vegan xylitol toothpaste and the thing went away! Pretty amazing.
Note: Please be very careful with xylitol around your pets. A tiny, tiny amount can kill your dogs.
Brown rice syrup won't spike your blood sugar levels as much as regular sugar, so it's much healthier for your body. I think it tastes exactly like honey, and it has the same texture, so you can use it as an exact replacement for honey and as a replacement for sugar. There are even candies made out of brown rice syrup that make excellent replacements for common candy.
"Real" maple syrup is made from boiling maple tree sap and has no additives. Don't be confused by the cheap, high fructose corn syrup version in the woman-shaped bottle that we all ate as kids.
100% maple syrup will cost more than the fake kind, but it's well worth it, and a little goes a long way. There are two different grades of maple syrup, A and B. A is lighter in color and flavor, and B is deeper in color and flavor. When they were designing the grading scale, lighter was considered better, but I prefer the darker, more intensely flavored grade B maple syrup.
Agave is made from the nectar inside a specific type of cactus, it also won't spike your blood sugar levels. I find agave syrup to be much sweeter than regular sugar, so you can use less than you normally would in recipes. There are some reports coming out now that suggest that agave syrup is highly processed and worse for our bodies than high fructose corn syrup, so more research needs to be done on this particular sweetener.
This sweetener is also helpful in recipes as it's made from grain and has a lower glycemic index, so it won't make you feel wonky from the sugar highs and lows of sugar spikes. It also has a taste similar to honey, so you have to taste to find your favorite. I absolutely love the flavor of barley malt-- it reminds me of the flavor of pretzels, and I use it in many recipes.
I love the flavor of molasses and unrefined blackstrap molasses is full of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B complex and calcium. To make brown sugar, white sugar and molasses are added together, and that's what gives brown sugar its richness and texture.
Because it has such an intense flavor, I use it conservatively and consider it more of a flavoring than necessarily a sweetener. In my opinion, you can't make amazing vegan chocolate chip cookies without a dollop of blackstrap molasses.
One of my favorite ways to sweeten things is with fruit juices. You'd be amazed at the different a dollop of applesauce, a piece of squashed banana, a pureed pineapple, or plain apple cider, orange juice, and other fruits can make. Depending on what you're baking, simple fruits can make a huge difference in the sweetness level, and they are truly nature's candy!
You can learn about the best vegan sugar substitutes for coffee and how other readers use vegan sugars here.
And, no matter what sugars you decide to use, please be aware of the Splenda side effects as it can cause serious health problems. Don't use the fake stuff in pink, yellow, blue bags.