You might remember studying yeast in your middle school science class and your teacher referring to it as a “microorganism”. Now for vegans, this label can be a cause of some confusion pertaining to the ethics behind eating yeast.
As you probably know, the vegan diet shuns any and all animal-sourced products. The word “microorganism” may cause vegans to assume that yeast can’t be included in their diet. However, the factual answer to the question “is yeast vegan?” is yes – yeast is widely accepted as a vegan food option.
How come, you ask? Well, let’s look into it.
Why is yeast vegan?
While it is true that yeast is a living organism, it’s important to remember that plants, too, are living things and yet they’re a part of the vegan diet. We brought this up to clarify that being a living thing isn’t the decisive criteria behind including or excluding something from the vegan diet.
The actual reason why yeast is an acceptable part of the vegan diet is that yeast is incapable of feeling pain, much like plants. There are close to 160 species of yeast – many of which are edible – but none of them have a nervous system that would allow them to experience pain. This, for many vegans, is what sets yeast apart from animals in terms of it being a product for consumption.
In fact, yeast isn’t even a part of the animal kingdom. It’s a type of single-celled fungi and resides in Kingdom Fungi!
Now that we have that out of our way, it’s time to touch upon the yeast consumption methods. You might be familiar with the fact that yeast is typically present in the bread and other bakery items, however, it is also a key ingredient in many other common foods. Chances are, you might have consumed yeast in a dish, at least once in your lifetime, without even realising it!
Yeast in food
In the food industry, yeast is most commonly used for fermentation. What’s that, you ask? Well to put it simply, fermentation refers to the chemical breakdown of a substance by a microorganism. In the case of yeast, this has a variety of applications.
Yeast is added to the dough of the bread because it feeds on the sugars present in the dough mixture. It breaks down the sugar and releases carbon dioxide and an alcohol, termed as ethanol. Carbon dioxide, being a gas, causes the bread to rise. This step is known as leavening.
Yeast is also commonly used to ferment alcoholic drinks. It is thanks to yeast that we get to indulge in an entire host of different alcohols such as lager, ale, and wine.
Interestingly, three of the most popular yeast-based products all come from the same species. The species goes by the scientific name of Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, which has been used in brewing and baking since ancient times.
Saccharomyces Cerevisiae is commonly referred to as nutritional yeast. However, due to its diverse usage, it goes by two other names as well: baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast.
All three of these names refer to the same species of yeast, so do not get confused! The different names only signify the yeast’s usage in different fields. A brief usage method for each is described below:
Baker’s yeast is bought alive. It is prepared for packaging by drying it at low temperatures, thus preventing it from being killed. As the name suggests, this type of yeast is typically used by bakers. It helps leaven bread and other bakery products and gives them an earthy taste.
P.S: While live yeast is added to food products, it is killed during the cooking process.
Brewer’s yeast is used in the making of beer. Again, this yeast is added in alive but by the time the brewing process is complete, the yeast is dead. Interestingly, the dead leftover yeast also serves as a nutritional supplement.
Although bitter in taste, brewer’s yeast is high in:
- amino acids
- B vitamins
- and minerals such as potassium and calcium
Nutritional yeast, also referred to as nooch, is different from brewer’s yeast in the sense that it is dried to make it inactive (dead), so that its nutritional benefits can be extracted to make nutritional supplements. Instead of deriving it as a byproduct of brewing, nutritional yeast is grown on molasses which is a sugar-rich growing medium.
The yeast is then given several days to grow, after which it is killed – or deactivated – by heating it at high temperatures. Just like brewer’s yeast, it is very nutritional but thanks to the molasses, it doesn’t taste bitter. Instead, it carries a slightly sweet, cheesy, or nutty taste.
How is nutritional yeast vegan?
Now, all this talk about “killing” may lead to some eyebrows being raised. However, we would just like to remind you that yeast is incapable of feeling pain. Veganism is all about minimising the suffering of living, feeling things, which means that there is no need to exclude any yeast from the vegan diet. Thus, nutritional yeast is no exception and is widely consumed by vegans all over the world.
Do vegans eat yeast?
The answer is yes, of course! Yeast is a dietary staple for many vegans.
However, just because yeast itself is vegan, does not mean that everything containing yeast is vegan. For example, bread contains yeast but is not a vegan food item. Yes, there are specific recipes for vegan bread, but regular bread contains eggs, sugar and milk-none of which are not vegan food items.
How is sugar non-vegan? Well, many, if not all, white sugar refining and packaging companies use companies use bone char – a material made from cattle bones – to decolourise sugar, making it non-vegan.
So although vegans cannot consume regular bread, there are plenty of yeast foods and beverages that are vegan- diet friendly.
Nutritional yeast, in particular, is used in a wide variety of vegan recipes. It is full of nutrition and its taste makes it the perfect topper for popcorn, Vegan Mac n Cheese, and tofu scrambles. It can even be added to sauces and dips!
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that yes, yeast is vegan, and many vegans eat yeast-based products! This is because although yeast is classified as a living thing, it does not have a nervous system, making it incapable of feeling any pain; which is the food selection criteria for vegans. So the next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up all your yeast-infused foods and beverages and enjoy them, guilt-free! (Ensure there are no other non-vegan ingredients in them though!)