Myths Surrounding Cotton Candy Busted

You have probably seen cotton candy, a cloud-like and often pink substance frequently served at fairs and public events. It is spun seemingly from thin air, and when consumed, seems to dissolve almost instantly.

You might not know exactly how cotton candy is made, or what it is made of.

Called cotton candy in the United States, you may have heard it called candy floss or fairy floss elsewhere. In France, it is called “papa’s beard”.

It tastes extremely sweet and is often served on a stick or in a small bag. With few vegan options often available at public events, many vegans trust that cotton candy is a vegan-friendly snack.

This is because it is believed that the only ingredient involved in creating it is sugar. But is this true?

If you are following a vegan diet, or know somebody who is, you are likely aware of the difficult ascertaining whether any dish or snack is vegan. This is because many vegans concern themselves with animal products not only in their food, but animals hurt or involved in the process of producing their food.

Vegan diets concern all aspects of food production, and cotton candy is no different: what is cotton candy? How is it made, and is it vegan?

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What is cotton candy?

Some suggest the origin of cotton candy is in spun sugar, from the 19th or as early as the 15th century. In 1897, the first machine-spun cotton candy was invented.

Food coloring was not originally added to the candy, hence its name of “cotton candy” referring to the white cotton plant. However, food coloring used varies widely today, with most traditional being pink.

Some cotton candy contains green, blue, red, or yellow dyes, mixed in various proportions for brighter or softer colors.

Flavorings both natural and artificial are used to enhance the taste of the candy, ranging from vanilla, to strawberry, blueberry, and grape. These as well as the food coloring are added into a spinning bowl at the start, though some manufacturers infuse these into the sugar itself before heating.

In electric cotton candy machines, granulated sugar, colorings, and flavorings are placed into a spinning bowl. A “head” is immersed in this bowl, with heading filaments inside.

Heating filaments inside of the head heat the sugar, which begins to melt into a syrup.As the machine spins the bowl, tiny holes in the bowl allow the sugar to seep out.

The centrifugal force caused by the high-speed spinning causes the sugar to whip through the holes, cooling rapidly because of the high-speed and airflow. This gives the sugar an unusual property.

Because the sugar cools so quickly, It does not have enough time to recrystallize before it is then pulled into long thin strands by centrifugal force and airflow. Instead of reforming into crystals, it becomes semi-solid strands that gather around the side of the bowl.

Once there are enough strands on the side of the bowl, a stick or other gathering mechanism is used to scoop up the liquid strands, forming a cotton-like cloud of sugar. Because it never fully crystallizes, the cotton stays wispy and melts in the mouth when eaten.

What is cotton candy made of?

Cotton candy is generally made from sugar, food coloring, and flavoring. The flavoring is not present in all cotton candy, as is the same with the coloring used.

So, are these ingredients vegan?

Why isn’t cotton candy vegan?

Unfortunately, the ingredients found in cotton candy are unlikely to be vegan, especially not in North America.

Flavorings and colorings pose issues for vegans, and these are both often found in cotton candy. Cotton candy that isn’t flavored will still have additional colorings, which whether artificial or natural can pose problems for vegans.

Up to 50% of North American refined cane sugar uses animal products in its processing, meaning many vegans cannot eat refined cane sugar.

Another issue is that a common natural red dye found in foods is Carmine, which is non-vegan and may be used in cotton candy.

Why is sugar not vegan?

Refined sugar may come from beets or sugar cane. Both are common in the United States and taste identical.

However, their refining processes are very different.

Beet sugar is vegan-friendly in its process. However, cane sugar is sometimes processed, filtered, and bleached using bone char.

This is because cane sugar is not naturally white in coloration, so some companies feel it is necessary to bleach its color back to white. Many companies sell unbleached and unrefined sugars, so this is not a necessary practice.

This is an unusual practice in much of the world, but common in the United States’ sugar industry. 

The only way to find out if the sugar in any product is made from bone char or not is to reach out to the manufacturer. This can be difficult to do when it comes to cotton candy, a treat commonly found at outdoor events; additionally, there is no guarantee the manufacturer will be able to locate the original source of the sugar.

What is bone char?

Bone char, also known as natural carbon, is used to bleach and refine cane sugar for a plain white coloration.

Unfortunately, bone char is obtained by heating the bones of dead cattle at scorching temperatures, making it an unsuitable production process for strict vegans. The bone char molecules do not remain in the product, meaning that this is still a kosher and vegetarian-friendly product.

Although there are modern alternatives, vegans have no way to know which type of refinement was used in the sugar they are eating. Those vegans concerned with animal cruelty often opt out of eating non-organic sugar.

Are food flavorings vegan?

Natural food flavorings are often derived from berries, nuts, trees, and other natural sources. These tend to be inherently vegan, and not a concern for most following a vegan diet.

Many are derived from animals, and are obviously so, like meat flavoring in a flavoring packet of instant noodles.

However, some like castoreum are harder to detect but should be avoided. Castoreum is found in a wide variety of products and derived from beavers.

It is unlikely to be found in cotton candy.

Artificial flavorings made in a laboratory are vegan. Although labels don’t describe the contents, these flavorings are not made from plants or animals.

To be labelled as artificial, the food labeling regulations of the United States require that they must not derive their taste from “meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products”, and so on and so forth. As a consequence, they are reliably vegan.

Are artificial colors vegan?

girl eating a blue cotton candy

Artificial colors are often considered technically vegan. However, many vegans contest artificial colors as they are a byproduct of animal testing.

Some vegans consume artificial colors, but others avoid them.

As people report allergic reactions or issues with hyperactivity in children arising from artificial colors, animal testing continues on these ingredients. Laboratories conduct periodic tests to ensure they are safe for consumptions, and these tests are conducted on animals.

Are natural food colorings vegan?

Most natural food coloring is vegan, generally being derived from plants. However, the exception to this is the color Carmine.

Carmine is a bright red pigment used in foods, cosmetics, and often to dye cotton candy pink.

Carmine is made by crushing, grounding, and then boiling the bodies of cochineal beetles. Carminic acid is then extracted from them and used as a natural dye.

For vegans concerned about this, it is best to seek out organic cotton candy.

What is organic cotton candy?

Organic cotton candy contains non-refined sugar, which means the sugar does not go through a filtering and bleaching process that requires bone char.

In addition, it’s free from dyes or artificial ingredients that may have undergone animal testing.

Is cotton candy vegetarian?

Yes. Cotton candy is vegetarian.

Although it may contain red dye derived from crushed insects, and sugar refined with bone char, these are not unavailable to those following a vegetarian diet.

If not indicated otherwise, anybody following a vegan diet should assume cotton candy contains these ingredients. These are, however, suitable for vegetarians.

Can I make my own vegan cotton candy?

Cotton candy can be made vegan with some simple replacements. It is often more a matter of getting the specialized equipment to heat and “spin” the candy, but more machines than ever are available online.

Some brands use organic and unprocessed sugar in the process, ensuring bone char hasn’t been used to bleach the sugar. Sugar beet does not require bleaching with natural carbon, so if cautious vegans can certify that their sugar was sourced from sugar beet, this is likely suitable for vegans.

Although there are some sellers that offer organic sources of sugar in their cotton candy, you can make your own cotton candy at home.

Any colorings and flavorings should be examined by those on a vegan diet to understand where these ingredients came from, and sugar should be unbleached, organic, or sourced from sugar beets.

Be sure to purchase sugar of the correct grain. The size of the sugar crystal is vital to producing cotton candy, as it has to be small enough to make full contact with the head of the heating element.

If the crystals are too large, it won’t make full contact, leading to uneven and incomplete heating. If the crystals are too small, they will fly out of the holes without being heated at all.

Try to purchase sugar of the correct crystal size with a properly sourced line of production. Beet sugar is often a safe choice, as it is not subject to bleaching and refinement with natural charcoal.

If you are adding flavoring, be careful to source where it came from and ensure that it is vegan. Artificial flavors may be a safer bet, as they will never contain any animal products.

As always, if you are a vegan concerned about animal testing, research the background of the flavor development.

If you are purchasing your own food coloring, be sure to research how it got to you. Artificial food colorings are often derived from petroleum and subsequently tested on animals for safety, so if you are following a vegan diet because you have ethical concerns about animal welfare, be sure to find a natural food coloring.

Natural beetroot coloring is often used and does not involve animal testing.

Please note, as discussed in our ‘Is Sugar Vegan?’ article, not all types of sugar can be considered vegan. It is therefore the responsibility of the reader to make their own inquiries with the manufacturers of these suggested vegan friendly alternatives to determine whether the sugar used in these products are suitable for vegan consumption.

Can cotton candy be vegan?

There are cotton candy options for anybody following a vegan-friendly diet. While you may have difficulty finding organic cotton candy at a fair or festival, many stores deliver 100% organic and vegan cotton candy to your home.

Sugar cane can also be bleached with other systems that do not involve bone char. Sugar made from sugar beet does not require char to refine it, meaning beetroot sugar is 100% organic and plant-based, with no animal products.

The pink color of cotton candy can come from synthetic pigments, which can be tested on animals, so some opt for natural beetroot pigmentation. 

Is vegan cotton candy good for you?

Although organic cotton candy is cruelty free, it is not likely to be beneficial to health.

Cotton candy is pure sugar, so it is bad for teeth, as well as blood sugar and general bodily inflammation. Consequently, cotton candy is best eaten in moderation.

Does vegan cotton candy taste different?

Vegan cotton candy has the same taste as classic cotton candy. The lack of additional artificial flavors may mean that specific flavors are not easy to obtain, such as blue raspberry.

However, the overall taste and texture will be the same.

So, can vegans eat cotton candy?

Although cotton candy isn’t often vegan, it is often up to the individual. It’s made from sugar which may contain bone char, natural colors which may contain crushed beetles, and artificial colors which are frequently tested on animals.

The problem with cotton candy is that the only way to be sure if it is vegan is to contact the manufacturer, a difficult prospect at a state fair or outdoor event. Even then, often manufacturers can’t provide a solid journey for the sugar they use, so they still may not know.

For this reason, while some vegans eat cotton candy, others choose to avoid it. For those following a vegan-friendly lifestyle, it is an ethical and personal choice.

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