The tortilla is a type of unleavened flatbread that is highly iconic in Mexican cuisine. While wheat tortillas can be found today, tortillas are still traditionally made from maize meal. Although the exact origins of the tortilla cannot be pinpointed, it is highly suggested that the tortilla originated from the Mesoamerican culture of maize (1). To this day, the tortilla remains largely unchanged in many rural areas of Mexico. As Mexican cuisine traveled around the world, the popularity of the tortilla rose.
Even though variations can be found across different recipes, the ingredients that are generally used to make tortillas are completely vegan. Regardless of whether the tortilla comes from maize meal, corn flour, or wheat flour, the essential ingredients are all vegan. However, tortillas can still become non-vegan depending on how they were prepared. It is not uncommon to prepare tortillas with animal fat such as butter or lard. Tortillas prepared with animal fats cannot be considered vegan.
Regardless of if it is traditional or conventional tortilla production, the process starts with corn. The corn is first heated in water. Traditionally, this can mean low heat overnight. In factories, the water is boiled for around less than an hour and left to steep for an additional eight hours. In both cases, powdered limestone is added to help soften the kernels.
After the corn has peeled from the boiling water, it is then ground at the mill. At the factory, the kernels are fed through volcanic rocks that also grind the corn into a grainy mash. The mash has to be pushed through an extruder to get a dough with better consistency. Other ingredients are then added to the dough for flavor such as water, salt, and sugar.
Once the dough has been made, they are then shaped into circles either by rolling or cutting. The circular dough can then be cooked on a heated surface or in an oven. Traditionally, tortillas are then consumed with sauces or stewed dishes. However, the modern use of tortillas has expanded to include virtually anything.
The ingredients that make up tortillas are very simple. Aside from the flour, all that would be needed is salt and water. Thus, tortillas can practically be considered vegan.
However, it would still benefit vegan consumers to look into the process of making tortillas. While vegan tortilla recipes exist, there are ways that can make tortillas non-vegan.
The primary factor that can contribute to tortillas being non-vegan is animal fats. It is not uncommon for some recipes to call for adding animal fat when preparing the dough. Adding animal fat not only adds to the flavor but also affects the texture of the tortilla.
It should also be noted that factory-made tortillas are added with glycerin. Although glycerin is not an outright animal product, many vegans still avoid the ingredient. Glycerin is primarily made from plant oils from soybean and palm. However, glycerin can also be obtained from animal sources. Thus, glycerin is considered a gray area ingredient because some vegans are okay with it while some vegans are not.
Some recipes also call for sugar in tortilla production. Sugar can be categorized similarly to glycerin in the sense that both substances are gray area ingredients. Although sugar is produced from plant sources, sugar can be non-vegan if it was produced with bone char. However, due to the difficulty in determining if whether bone char was actually used or not, many vegans would avoid sugar as a general precaution.
Animal fats are lipids derived from animals. These include butter, lard, suet, ghee, and schmaltz. Unlike oils, these types of fats are solid at room temperature. However, the chemical constituents that make up oil and fats are highly similar. Animal fats can be commonly found in food as they affect flavor and texture. They are also commonly used as a shortening in baking to give the baked goods a crumbly or flaky texture.
Unfortunately, these substances cannot be considered vegan since they are directly sourced from animals.
Instead of cooking oil, animal fats are also used for frying. Although animal fats are solid at room temperature, they can quickly melt when heated. Many people prefer frying with animal fats to cooking oil due to flavor preferences.
In making tortillas, it is not uncommon to find recipes that call for adding lard or butter when preparing the dough. The addition of these animal fats enriches the flavor and also affects the texture. Unfortunately, tortillas prepared this way are not vegan.
Glycerin, also known as glycerol, is a commonly used preservative in food. Structurally, the compound is a triol – a polyol with three hydroxyl groups. Aside from the food industry, glycerin can be found in a wide array of industrial applications such as cosmetics, medication, electronic cigarette liquids, antifreeze, and many more.
Glycerin can be naturally found in all living organisms. This is where the problem of glycerin begins. Although most of the glycerin produced today comes from plant sources such as soybean and palm, there are also some sources of glycerin that are animal-based. This uncertainty makes glycerin a gray area ingredient.
Although glycerin is not a typical ingredient for authentic or homemade tortillas, it is a common ingredient for factory-made tortillas because of how it can enhance the shelf life and shelf stability of both wheat tortillas and corn tortillas (2).
Sugar is a common ingredient that can be found in many food products and beverages. It is conventionally considered a sweetener but there are some cases where sugar is used as a preservative like in jams. Although sugar is obtained from plant sources such as sugarcane and sugar beets, it is still possible to render sugar non-vegan depending on how it was produced.
After the sugar has been extracted from its plant source, it is already appropriate for human consumption. However, sugar companies would typically subject the sugar to further refinement processes to make the sugar more appealing to mass consumers. These refinement processes make the sugar whiter and finer.
One process involved in sugar refinement is filtration. The sugar juice is passed through a sieve or porous material to remove debris and other non-sugar particles, thus increasing the purity of the sugar. Although this physical process does not add anything to the sugar, the problem with filtration is the materials used. Some companies use bone char – the charred bones of various animals (3). Thus, sugar produced with bone char cannot be considered vegan since bone char is directly obtained from animals.
The problem with bone char is that it is difficult to determine if it was used in sugar refinement. Since filtration is merely a single step in sugar refinement, the necessary information is not typically included in package labels. It is also difficult to determine if the sugar used by a food company was produced with bone char or not because large food companies can have multiple sources for sugar.
Fortunately, vegans from other parts of the world are not worried about sugar because the practice of using bone char in sugar refinement is typically prevalent in the US.