You Can't Assume Your Canned Refried Beans Are Vegetarian. Here's Why

If you're vegetarian, vegan, or shopping and cooking for someone who is, you know a discerning and careful eye is necessary when scanning ingredient lists. All too often, you think an item is veg-friendly just to discover a sneaky addition of milk powder or another inconspicuous animal product you didn't realize it contained. Refried beans are one such item — you might assume they're vegetarian and vegan, but that's not always the case. 


Though beans are a great, inexpensive, protein-rich plant-based food on their own, certain add-ins often included in some types of refried beans can trip up even the most seasoned vegetarian grocery shopper. The key is to know what you're looking for and be sure to scan labels to avoid coming home with an accidentally non-vegetarian item. Along with of course the beans and water, lard is a commonly added ingredient to canned refried beans (and the dish at Mexican restaurants), to add fatty flavor and texture. A quick scan of the ingredient list will tell you if the can you've picked up is made with lard or is the fat-free vegetarian variety.

What is lard and why is it in your refried beans?

Lard, which has been used in kitchens and old-school toiletries like soap for centuries, is a byproduct derived from pork and therefore not vegetarian-friendly. It's made from rendering, or cooking down parts of the animal's fat after separating it from the muscle. Today, it's fallen by the wayside in favor of more popular cooking fat alternatives like butter or shortening or oil-based products like palm oil, which essentially replaced lard due to cheapness and changing opinions about the health of consuming animal fats. But a kitchen 150 years ago would have relied heavily on lard. 


Today, refried beans are perhaps one of the few items at the grocery store where you can still expect to see lard listed on ingredient labels, as it's often what is used to give authentic refried beans a porky, fatty flavor. Interestingly, outside influences and colonizers were most likely responsible for this, as pig products were not traditionally used in Indigenous Mexican cooking. Some Mexican and Mexican-inspired restaurants will also use beans with lard, so those avoiding animal products altogether would be wise to check with their server before ordering.

How to ensure your beans are vegetarian

Though lard is the old-school fatty addition to refried beans, it's certainly not the only way to make them. Most grocery stores will carry several varieties of refried beans, and if you're vegetarian or vegan, look for ones marked as fat-free or vegetarian. These varieties will be made virtually fat-free, containing mostly beans, spices, and a small amount of plant-based oil or no oil at all. 


If you're making your own from scratch, most homemade refried beans call for some type of oil — often olive oil — and can easily be made in an instant pot. Contrary to popular belief, refried beans aren't actually fried twice as the name suggests — it's a linguistic mistranslation. But whether you choose the version that contains lard, or the fat-free or vegetarian options, they certainly are a satisfying side dish or ingredient that pairs perfectly with your tacos, burritos, or enchiladas.