What are Grits?
This creamy, thick, porridge-like dish is a classic breakfast in many southern states. It is also the base of the widely popular meal of shrimp and grits on many southern restaurant menus. But what are they, and how are they different from other types of porridge, like polenta?
“Grits” means “coarse meal.” This coarse meal is made from starchy corn kernels, and while similar to cornmeal, it is rougher and grainier. They were first introduced to the early American settlers by the Native Americans.
Grits are cooked in a hot liquid, typically water or milk for breakfast or broth for a more savory dish. While grits are a carbohydrate-filled dish, when paired with other healthy ingredients like lean protein or vegetables, they can be part of a balanced diet and have a limited impact on your blood sugar level.
Different Varieties of Grits
Grits are available in a few different varieties. The main difference is their coarseness and how much of the corn kernel is in the product. They range from very rough and thick to a more finely ground variety. The grind impacts their nutritional profile, cooking time, and flavor. The main varieties of grits are:
These are the most nutrient-rich form of grits. The entire corn kernel is dried and ground between two large stones. The germ and hull remain in the final product, making these grits rich in fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. They may also be labeled as “old-fashioned grits.”
Hominy grits are known for their longer cooking time. To remove the hull, the corn kernel is soaked in an alkaline mixture like baking soda and water or lime. Once the hull is removed, the remaining kernel is dried and ground. The germ remains in the mixture, so these grits retain their B vitamins and vitamin E, but some fiber is lost.
Quick and regular
Regular and quick grits are soaked and stripped of the hull and germ, and the remaining starch is dried and then ground. The majority of nutrients are lost through this process but are added back in, or enriched, after the grinding. The difference between regular and quick grits is their texture. Regular grits are a bit more coarse and take longer to cook, while quick grits have a finer texture and cook in about 5 minutes.
These are the most highly ground form of grits. They are pre-cooked and dehydrated and typically sold in individual packages. Nutrients that are lost to processing are added back in, with the exception of fiber. Instant grits have little fiber remaining, but they are the quickest to prepare. To prepare them, just add boiling water and let them sit for a minute or two, and they will be thick and ready to enjoy.
Benefits of Grits
Because grits come from a starchy type of corn, they are rich in carbohydrates. So you may be questioning if grits are healthy for you. However, like other grains, grits contain various nutrients, have some health benefits, and, when eaten in moderation, can be an important part of a healthy diet. So the answer is yes, grits can be good for you.
The nutritional value of grits varies slightly by the type or variety of grits; the biggest difference is the fiber content. Stone ground and hominy grits provide about 4 g of fiber per cup, while regular or quick grits provide about 2g of fiber per cup. Instant grits are lower and only contain 1g of fiber per cup.
More refined grits, like quick cooking and instant grits, are enriched or fortified with nutrients to replace what is lost through processing.
1 cup of cooked, enriched, regular, or quick grits provides1:
- 150 calories
- 3 g of protein
- 1 g of fat
- 32 g of carbohydrates
- 1.5 g of fiber
- 2 mg calcium
- 1.3 mg iron (about 7% Daily Value)
- 33 mcg folic acid (8% Daily Value)
Grits are also a good source of many B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6.
While they provide many essential nutrients and can be part of a healthy diet, they are high in carbohydrates and have a relatively high glycemic index ranging from 69 to 109, depending on the type of grits2,3,4.
There is little data available for stone ground grits, but the glycemic index would be lower for it and hominy grits because of their higher fiber content.
Health Benefits of Eating Grits
Grits can be incorporated into a healthy diet and have a limited impact on your blood sugar by combining them with foods that are rich in protein and have some fat. This will help slow the absorption of carbohydrates from the grits and stabilize your blood sugar.
Grits, especially stone ground and old-fashioned varieties, contain fiber that may help support your metabolic health and reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Corn contains carotenoids called lutein and zeaxanthin, compounds found in plants that give them their yellow or orange color. Both lutein and zeaxanthin are found in the retina of our eyes. Research has shown these nutrients protect the eye from damage caused by blue light and free radicals. Eating foods high in these nutrients may also help protect your eyes from age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness as you age.5
Grits are made from gluten-free corn and can be used by people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. Like oats, it is important to look at the package and ensure they are processed on a line that does not process wheat products to limit any possibility of cross-contamination.
Helps with Anemia
Anemia is a condition that occurs when you do not have enough red blood cells to move oxygen throughout your body. There are different types of anemia, but the most common is iron deficiency anemia. Eating a healthy diet with various iron-containing foods, including whole and enriched grains, is one of the best ways to prevent it. Grits are often enriched with iron and several other necessary vitamins and minerals.2 Eating them with vitamin C-rich food like oranges or tomatoes will help your body absorb iron.
Are There Any Downsides to Eating Grits?
Like other foods, eating grits in moderation is the key to good health. Consuming too large a portion at one time or having them too often could have some downsides. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you enjoy grits.
Calorie content depends on the portion size and preparation method. Grits cooked in water or broth do not have additional calories. But the minute you slather on a pat of butter, top it with cream, or mix in shredded cheese, that calorie count goes way up!
Grits cooked in low-fat milk are higher in calories and carbohydrates but contain protein and vitamin D, so it can be a balancing act. Keep the amount of milk to ½ to 1 cup and limit any extra fat, which will help keep the calories at a reasonable level.
We’ve mentioned that most grits contain a decent amount of fiber, but instant grits are finely ground, and much of the fiber has been removed. So to most benefit from them and the most fiber, stick with old-fashioned or regular grits.
High In Fat
Grits alone are not high in fat, but they often have butter, oil, or cheese added, adding a significant amount of saturated fat and calories. Be mindful of the preparation method and choose a variety of lower-calorie items like vegetables and fruit to serve with them.
Grits vs. Polenta
Both grits and polenta are made from cornmeal. The difference is the type of cornmeal and how much it is ground. Grits can be made from yellow or white corn, roughly ground like stone-ground or hominy, or finely ground like instant grits. Polenta is typically made from finely ground yellow cornmeal. The other difference is cultural preparation. Polenta is an Italian dish cooked to a thick and creamy texture, while grits are southern and have a thicker, coarser texture. Grits and polenta have a similar nutrition content.
Cream of Wheat vs. Grits
While grits are made from dried corn kernels, cream of wheat is made from dried wheat kernels. Cream of wheat is slightly lower in fiber than grits and is also an enriched grain. It has iron, B vitamins, and folic acid added. Also, cream of wheat does not contain the healthy carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin found in grits.
Grits and Glucose Levels
Grits have a moderate glycemic index of 65, but some types can be as high as 109.4 Stone ground grits and hominy are likely lower in the glycemic index due to their higher fiber content, while instant grits will be higher.
Remember, it is important to consider the type of grits, the amount you eat, and the preparation method. These factors can also impact your blood glucose level. Keep your portion size to ½ to 1 cup and add a healthy protein like seafood, lean pork, roasted chicken, or an egg. Both will help keep your blood sugar more stable.
Balanced Way to Eat Grits
There are many ways to enjoy grits as part of a balanced and healthy diet, including:
- Use less cheese
- Use extra virgin olive oil in place of butter
- Add more vegetables
- Add fruit in place of sugar
- Limit the amount of butter added
- Cook in vegetable broth instead of water
- Add honey or coconut sugar for a sweet alternative that will add extra flavor
- Add seasonings, including smoked paprika or an Italian seasoning blend
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Topics discussed in this article:
- United States Department of Agriculture. Food Data Central. Cereals, Corn Grits, Yellow, Regular, Quick, Enriched, Cooked with Water, with Salt. Accessed 2/14/2023.
- Papanikolaou, Y., & Fulgoni, V. L. (2017). Grain Foods Are Contributors of Nutrient Density for American Adults and Help Close Nutrient Recommendation Gaps: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2009-2012. Nutrients, 9(8), 873. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9080873
- Panlasigui, L. N., Bayaga, C. L., Barrios, E. B., & Cochon, K. L. (2010). Glycaemic response to quality protein maize grits. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2010, 697842. https://doi.org/10.1155/2010/697842
- Mlotha, V., Mwangwela, A. M., Kasapila, W., Siyame, E. W., & Masamba, K. (2015). Glycemic responses to maize flour stiff porridges prepared using local recipes in Malawi. Food science & nutrition, 4(2), 322–328. https://doi.org/10.1002/fsn3.293
- Abdel-Aal, el-S. M., Akhtar, H., Zaheer, K., & Ali, R. (2013). Dietary sources of lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids and their role in eye health. Nutrients, 5(4), 1169–1185. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu5041169