A lot of caramel is vegan, but some is not.
The tricky part is that a lot of products that list “caramel” in the ingredients don’t specify if it contains dairy or not, or how it was made.
There are 2 main issues that caramel may or may not have.
Issue #1 – Dairy
The simplest, pure caramel is made only by heating sugars.
But a lot of products use caramel, or a caramel sauce that also contains dairy (most often milk and cream).
Given the prevalence of the form of caramel with dairy in it, it’s not safe to assume that any caramel is vegan.
Issue #2 – Sugar
Caramel can be made with any type of sugar, but typically uses white sugar.
The problem with that is that not all white sugar is vegan, especially in North America.
It’s often filtered with bone char (from cow bones). So even though there is no animal product in the final product, you’re still contributing to the animal slaughtering industry if you consume this type of sugar, which makes it not vegan.
Some vegans don’t care too much about this issue, but I’ll let you make up your own mind.
Verdict: Don’t Assume Caramel is Vegan
Unless they explicitly state the ingredients, I’d suggest being on the safe side and avoiding food with caramel. Don’t confuse caramel with caramel color though.
If it’s something you really want to have, contact the manufacturer and ask them directly, as they’re the only ones who can tell you if their caramel is vegan.
If you need caramel for baking, either buy one that’s vegan certified, or make your own.