These days, grocery stores are filled with a plethora of sweeteners from which to choose. Some are not vegan because they come from animals, while others use animal products in their production or cause ecological or social harm that leads to human and non-human suffering. With so many products and so many ingredients that are unidentifiable to the average consumer, we’re taking a look at five popular types of sweeteners to make sure your preferred sweetener is as ethical as you are.
1. Cane sugar
Many people are now aware that cane sugar can be processed using bone char (bovine bones), which is not vegan. What is less known is that sugarcane is harvested by one of two methods: by hand or by machines. Hand harvesting is still more common than machine, especially in the developing world. When preparing a field to be harvested by hand, the field is set on fire to burn the sharp dry outer leaves of the cane, and chase away or kill snakes, all of which makes the cane easier to harvest. The fire releases many pollutants into the air that harm human and non-humans who live near the cane. These pollutants include formaldehyde and acenaphthylene, which have both been linked to cancer.
Honey comes from an animal, which means its consumption is not vegan. However, humans need bees because they pollinate all major tree crops, including nuts, and fruit. Bees also pollinate blueberries, strawberries, cranberries, melons, cucumbers, squash, and many other plants. In fact, the primary economic driver for beekeepers is pollination fees, not honey. So, while the direct consumption of honey is not considered cruelty-free, vegans (and carnivores) rely heavily on bees to create much of the food we love.
3. Agave nectar
Agave nectar is made from the sap of the blue agave plant and largely grown in Mexico and South Africa. Both locations are arid and often require irrigation if rainwater is insufficient. Much of the environmental and social-impact information regarding agave is based on research done on tequila. Mismanagement of agave plantations and contracts in Mexico has caused a rollercoaster of prices and spurred agave shortages, which has caused small producers to go out of business and the consolidation of production to large plantations. These plantations are monocultures that rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. If you want to ensure your agave is sustainable for the planet and people, look for organic and fair-trade.
4. Maple syrup
Did you know that it takes approximately 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup? Even though this sounds like a lot of energy to make syrup, well-managed maple trees can yield a sustainable source of sweetness. In fact, “sugaring” (as its otherwise known) is often managed by families who tend the same trees for generations. When trees die naturally, they can be used to fuel the evaporators that boil the syrup as a renewable resource. With this in mind, try to support your small, local and USDA-certified organic syrup producers if this is your sustainable sweetener of choice.
Stevia is a natural sweetener that has no net calories and has been used for hundreds of years. Stevia is made by steeping the leaves of the stevia plant, which is native to South America, but modern cultivation takes place in Paraguay, Kenya, Peru, China, and the United States. A life cycle assessment (LCA) of sweeteners showed that stevia has a lower carbon and water footprint than beet and cane sugar. If this is your sustainable sweetener of choice, look for certified organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified products to ensure your sweet relief did not contribute to deforestation in South America.
Julie Sinistore, PhD, is an environmental consultant, a lecturer at UC Berkeley on Life Cycle Thinking, and a long-time vegan.