Grits is a popular food product in North America. There are many versions of the tasty gelatinous cornmeal mixture commonly consumed throughout the world.
For example, cornmeal is a staple food in East African countries such as Kenya, where it’s used to make ugali and uji.1 But, the term “grits” usually refers to the food product that originated in the Southern US.2 And that’s the version we’re talking about in this article.
Are they vegan? In their most basic form, grits are 100% vegan. It’s simply boiled cornmeal—namely, hominy corn. The corn is boiled until the grits soften and become gelatinized.
Another important note: this article refers to hominy grits. But, the term “grits” can refer to a number of cereal grains. Pearled barley, for example, can be used to make barley grits.
Pearled barley undergoes removal of pearlings which takes out the germ, bran, and certain parts of the endosperm giving the end product a polished pearl-like color. The pearl barley is then toated and broken up into particles.3
Also, cornmeal mixtures often referred to as “hasty pudding” or “mush” (such as the ugali mentioned above) are typically made from corn that’s a bit more finely ground compared to grits.
While this article refers to grits, the finely ground cornmeal mush can be considered the same in terms of vegan-friendliness. The basic ingredients are the same.
So, anyway, I get asked quite a bit about the vegan friendliness of hominy grits. Probably because they have a unique texture. Any time a food product has a unique texture, you have to wonder whether or not any animal products were needed to achieve it.
So, what we’ll do here is go over the various reasons grits are considered vegan.
Why Grits Are Considered Vegan
Grits achieve their characteristic texture without the use of animal products—namely, via a process known as gelatinization. Don’t let the “gelatin” part of the word throw you off.
Gelatinization is simply the process in which the intermolecular bonds of the starch molecules begin to break down when exposed to water and high heat. This results in the hydrogen bonding sites being exposed to more water which creates a gel-like consistency.
The term hominy refers to enlarged kernels of hulled corn that’s had the germ and bran removed. The endosperm of the white hominy corn is soaked in lye and then dried which causes it to enlarge.
The corn is treated with an alkali in a process known as “nixtamalization” with the pericarp removed—a fancy way of saying the corn undergoes a process to help remove aflatoxins and other contaminants.4
The dried corn is then coarsely ground into small uniform particles that are then boiled and served, typically as a breakfast dish.5
So, not animal products are needed.
Non-Vegan Applications of Grits
Just because a food is considered vegan in itself, doesn’t mean that every application of the food will be suitable for vegans.
Grits are often served with a number of savory dishes, wherein various ingredients and flavorings are added.2
Shrimp and Grits
Shrimp is a popular companion to grits, especially in the Southern US where the product is served in seafood restaurants.2
The seafood restaurant I grew up frequenting (prior to becoming vegan) always served grits, by default, alongside shrimp, fish and other seafood.
This is a very popular southern dish. This version uses standard grits along with cheese and other milk products.
This is probably the most common ingredient that turns an otherwise vegan food into a non-vegan dish.
Luckily, this an easy fix. If ordering in a restaurant, you’ll want to ask for margarine—make sure it’s plant-based. If they don’t have margarin, you can just order the grits plain.
If making your own grits, just use water for the boiling process (not milk) and a dairy-free plant-based margarine.
I say “dairy-free” because a lot of plant-based buttery spreads out there do contain milk derivatives. So, you’ll definitely want to check the label.
This one is not quite as common as plain old grits and butter, but you will run into it from time to time when ordering grits at restaurants or searching for recipes.
It’s basically just grits boiled in milk instead of water.
If ordering at a restaurant, just request that your grits be made in water only. If making your own, then boil your grits in water or your favorite plant milk.
Commercial Vegan Grits
Pretty much all plain grits you’ll encounter are going to be suitable for vegan consumption. Your basic processed pre-packaged grits are going to contain the hominy corn along with vitamin fortification.
For example, Quaker Instant Grits (plain) contains specially processed degerminated white corn grits, salt, minerals (reduced iron and calcium carbonate), B vitamins (niacin, thiamin mononitrate, folic acid, and riboflavin), BHT and citric acid (as preservatives).6
A pretty standard list of ingredients based on my experience.
Because most grits are just made up of corn and micronutrient fortification, it would be faster to list the varieties that are off-limits for vegans. Quaker Oats has a variety pack you’ll want to stay away from.
It contains butter, three cheese, and cheddar cheese flavors. The butter flavor, though it doesn’t contain actual butter, does contain whey protein.7
The cheese flavors contain whey protein and cheddar cheese which is a combination of milk, bacterial cultures, salt, and enzymes.8
That’s it for the vegan status of grits. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Cornmeal. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornmeal
- The Surprisingly Recent Story Of How Shrimp and Grits Won Over the South. Robert Moss – http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/08/shrimp-and-grits-southern-food-history.html
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 354). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Nixtamalization. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixtamalization
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 353). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011
- Quaker Instant Grits, Original, Value Pack, 22 Packets. Tammy K- Bess – https://www.walmart.com/ip/Quaker-Instant-Grits-Original-Value-Pack-22-Packets/37643095
- Quaker Instant Grits, Butter, 1 Oz Packets, 12 Count. TLC1983- Squiggy- dixies2cats- Ponytales- watts4664 – https://www.walmart.com/ip/Quaker-Instant-Grits-Butter-1-oz-Packets-12-Count/10312472
- Quaker Instant Grits, Cheddar Cheese, 1 Oz Packets, 12 Count. Stella T-Nancy A – https://www.walmart.com/ip/Quaker-Instant-Grits-Cheddar-Cheese-1-oz-Packets-12-Count/10312479