It occured to me while baking yesterday that I needed to read up on sugar. I thought I recalled there was something about it…
Some cursory research reminded me that sugar can sometimes be made using charred animal bones. Oh yeah, that was it.
The best information I could find on this was this article written by at Jeanne Yacoubou, research director at the Vegetarian Resource Group. Bone char, also known as abaiser, or “natural charcoal”, is generally made by burning large cow bones, like pelvic bones, for more than 12 hours at over 700°C. The bones come from animals in Brazil, India, Morocco, Nigeria, and Pakistan. The author calculates that each filter in a processing plant would need around 70,000 pounds of char; that’s the charred bones of nearly 7,800 cattle. Each plant could have several of these filters, which need to be replaced every 5 to 10 years.
So far so weird. But as far as I can ascertain no bovine pelvises were used in anything I’ve baked recently, which is always a nice fun fact to be able to share with people as one offers them cake. An equally fun fact is that the plural of pelvis can be written as either pelvises or pelves but not, sadly, pelvi.
It seems most of Europe’s sugar comes from sugar beet, which isn’t filtered with char. Cane sugar generally is, but not always. I’ve read that the use of bone char in the refining process is banned in the EU, but I can’t find any other source for this. Problems arise with sugar products that are a mixture of cane and beet, or beet sugar that was processed outside the EU. So the conclusion is something most vegans could probably have told me at the start: check with the manufacturers.
As delighted as these companies would no doubt be to detail the presence or lack of giant bone silos at their plants, I am spared this task by helpful people who have already inquired and shared this information. Vegan.de confirms that none of the 3 main German sugar producers (Südzucker AG, Pfeifer & Langen and Union-Zucker) use animal products. Irish readers will remember from their Geography classes that sugar beets were grown in Ireland and processed by Irish Sugar Ltd. It was news to me to read that the the last Irish beet sugar plants closed down in 2006, so who knows what mixture of imported beet/cane mixture is being used in Siúcra these days.
In pondering the usefulness of avoiding sugar that has been refined using animal bones, I linger on the last lines of J. Yacoubou’s aforementioned piece:
Use this article with other information to assist you in making personal decisions, not as a standard that you or others may not be able to achieve. Don’t let smaller issues get in the way of larger dietary or ethical decisions. Always be encouraging to others and do the best you can, taking into account that neither you nor the world is perfect.
I also have the niggling feeling, however, that I should be avoiding sugar instead of heaping it into cupcakes – bones or no bones. I may or may not have gotten this idea while reading Skinny Bitch a few months ago. Chapter 3 of this book, named in the authors’ typically understated style, is called Sugar is the Devil. I took note of this because of the link this book spells out between refined sugar and a body’s pH balance. My pharmacist would have me believe it isn’t normal for a 23 year old to have bouts of chronic heartburn (aka pH levels of stomach gone haywire). Is this true? I may never know. But for this and many other reasons I should probably look into sugar free baking post-haste.
This much I now know: in Germany I’m unlikely to stumble upon bone filtered sugar in the supermarket. With this issue swept to the recycle bin of my conscience I am free to ponder that other great confectionery-based dilemma: