Yeast extract is a food flavoring made from the same yeast used to make bread and beer. It’s also added to some foods like soy sauce and cheese for a savory flavor. The taste they create is sometimes referred to as “umami.”
Yeast extract is also found in canned soups and stews, frozen dinners, and salty snacks. In Britain and Australia, you can even find it used as a sandwich spread — ever heard of Marmite or Vegemite?
But is yeast extract good for you? Read on to find out.
Yeast extract is made by adding sugar to yeast in a warm environment. As the yeast expands, the walls of its cells soften. This mixture is then spun in a centrifuge and the loosened cell walls are whisked away.
There are two kinds of yeast extract, autolyzed and hydrolyzed. In both, the cell walls are discarded and the contents of the cell are combined.
In autolyzed yeast, the enzymes found in the yeast itself are used to break down the proteins. In hydrolyzed yeast, these enzymes are added to the yeast. Yeast extract can be found as a thick gel or in a moist powdered form.
Most manufacturers are upfront in their use of yeast extract, listing it as just that on food labels. Sometimes, “natural flavors” or “additives” also can mean yeast extract is used.
Yeast extract contains glutamates, which are forms of an amino acid that are found naturally in many foods. They’re sometimes extracted and used as additives to prepared food. This product is commonly known as monosodium glutamate (MSG). Yeast extract contains naturally occurring glutamates, but not as much as MSG.
The main difference between yeast extract and MSG in foods comes down to flavor. MSG doesn’t have a flavor. Instead, it acts as a flavor enhancer, like salt. Yeast extract adds flavor to foods, like a spice.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires products that contain MSG to state this on the label. Foods that contain yeast extract don’t need to specify that they contain MSG. However, they can’t claim to contain “No MSG.”
While yeast extract is very high in sodium, manufactures don’t add much of it to prepare foods — even in sandwich spreads. The small amounts that are added to food don’t alter their sodium content significantly. However, you may want to avoid yeast extract if you have a problem with blood pressure or another reason to limit sodium.
Some people experience mild flushing of the skin and headaches when they eat glutamates or MSG. However, the medical community hasn’t established that there’s such a thing as an allergy to glutamates. Since such small amounts of yeast extract are used, it would be hard to eat enough to cause a reaction.
Yeast extract is very high in B vitamins, so it’s a cheap source of these vitamins. This is good news for pregnant women or people with malabsorption conditions that cause them to need more B vitamins.
If you have a food allergy or sensitivity, you certainly want to be careful about what you eat. Yeast extract isn’t bad for most people. If you want to avoid added ingredients like yeast extract, limit your consumption of prepared and packaged foods. Try buying more fresh foods and preparing them yourself.