About half the white table sugar manufactured in the United States is cane sugar and the other half is beet sugar. Beet sugar accounts for about 40% of the world's sugar, and the United States is the third largest producer. The primary distinction between cane sugar and beet sugar, other than being derived from different plants, is the processing method. Unlike beet sugar, cane sugar processing typically takes place at two locations: the sugar mill and the refinery. During the final purification process, cane sugar is filtered through activated carbon (charcoal), which may be of animal (bone char), vegetable, or mineral origin. This step is unnecessary for beet sugar because it doesn’t require the same extensive decolorization as cane sugar. Instead, the beets’ juice is extracted through the use of a diffuser and mixed with additives that cause the juice to crystallize.
You can't tell how cane sugar was processed just by looking at it or tasting it, which makes it impossible for a consumer to distinguish white table sugar refined with bone char from its vegan counterpart. Note that the bone char used to filter cane sugar is so far removed from its animal source that sugar processed in this method is deemed kosher pareve, which, according to Jewish dietary laws, means that it contains no meat or milk in any form as an ingredient or derivative and has been produced, processed, and packaged on kosher equipment.
Consumers also can't discern any differences between beet sugar and cane sugar in taste, appearance, or performance. Beet sugar is frequently not labeled as such -- the packaging may just state "sugar." Cane sugar is more often labeled specifically, but not always. For consumers wishing to differentiate, the issue is a bit convoluted. Confounding matters further, manufacturers may alternate the type of filtration used based on availability and current market prices.
Brown sugar consists of sugar crystals (cane sugar or beet sugar) combined with molasses for taste and color. Confectioner's sugar (also known as powdered sugar) is white table sugar that has been pulverized into a very fine powder and sifted.
A number of vegans prefer to replace white or brown sugar with unbleached cane sugar or dehydrated and granulated cane juice, both of which are sold online and at natural food stores and supermarkets. Most of these products can replace white sugar measure for measure for general use (such as on cereal or in beverages) and in recipes. These products are typically darker in color than white table sugar -- ranging from light amber to rich brown -- due to their naturally higher molasses content. This can sometimes alter the flavor of recipes and may also affect the color of the finished product.
Unbleached cane sugar is considered by some to be more healthful than white table sugar. Although it may contain minimal trace nutrients, a person would have to eat massive quantities of this sugar to obtain any measurable nutritive value. And, of course, there are numerous drawbacks associated with the overconsumption of sugar, including tooth decay and obesity.
Nutritionally speaking, sugar is sugar is sugar, whether it's white table sugar, maple sugar, or a natural alternative. A 1948 federal law requires all products sold as sugar in the United States to be at least 96% pure sucrose, so even "raw" sugar (sometimes called "turbinado sugar") is by law compositionally close to white table sugar -- between 96% and 98% sucrose.
Beyond the bone char concerns and health-related issues, there are many factors to consider when purchasing sugar and products that contain it. The vast majority of sugarcane is not organically grown, and most sugar plantations employ environmentally unsound agricultural methods, such as heavy insecticide and pesticide use and crop burning, which negatively impact soil, air, water, and the health of the workers. Sugarcane production is labor and energy intensive and uses large amounts of fossil fuels in processing, filtration, packaging, and transport. Plantation owners typically pay meager wages and provide no benefits, while workers are forced to endure brutal, substandard conditions.
There are many reasons why some vegans choose to avoid white table sugar, why some don't have any concerns about consuming it, why some purchase only organically grown unbleached sugar, and why still others eschew sugar products altogether. A prudent approach may be to reduce the use of all types of sugar, including sugary processed foods, and to train our taste buds to more fully appreciate the natural sweetness of fresh and dried fruits, grain sweeteners, and other whole foods. Still another option is to purchase granulated natural sweeteners, such as maple sugar, granular fruit sweetener, date sugar, or stevia, or to use natural liquid sweeteners, such as pure maple syrup, agave nectar, malt syrup, brown rice syrup, and mixed fruit juice concentrates. These products are available online as well as at natural food stores and many supermarkets.