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Chances are, if you glance through your pantry, you will find numerous foods that contain yeast extract. This ingredient is particularly prevalent in crackers and other carb-based food with a savory flavor. Given the positive reputation of nutritional yeast and the widespread use of baker’s yeast in bread and pastries, most people never give this ubiquitous additive a second thought.
But what is hydrolyzed or autolyzed yeast extract really? Is it a friend or foe in the diet? To get to that answer, we must start at the very beginning, with the wiring of our biology to enjoy, even crave, the taste of glutamate.
Why We Love Glutamate
As a child, I remember our family holiday get-togethers. Platters of plates of food-filled every nook, cranny, and corner of my grandmother’s house. The meal would last for hours, often well into the evening and even the next day! But one food never made it that long. Grandma’s Swedish Meatballs were always gone in a flash. Perfectly formed, oven browned, then dropped into a crockpot to slow simmer for days on end. The family all fought over these as if they were manna straight from heaven!
But what made this one food so sought after among the dozens of others? What made little balls of meat irresistible to our bodies and brains? Part of it was the presence of natural glutamates.
The term “glutamates” refers to the many forms of glutamic acid. It is an amino acid (a building block of protein) found naturally in many foods and in our bodies.
What makes glutamates so powerful?
Glutamates, like sugar and salt, but to a higher degree, trigger a response in our brains that make us enjoy our food. This response is not necessarily bad, as a wide variety of foods and traditional dishes contain glutamates. Some of these dishes contain them at high concentrations. Aged cheese, fermented vegetables, cured meats, slow-simmered stocks, soy sauce all contain glutamate.
Glutamates don’t just taste good, they ARE good. It is an abundant neurotransmitter in the brain and is not only beneficial but essential for life itself.
In 1908, a scientist finally discovered that it is glutamates that form the fifth taste, called “umami,” that we love in so many traditional foods. But like many natural things, commercial interests tend to want to “improve” upon them. The reason? To essentially make cheap food taste high quality. The result? Monosodium glutamate (MSG) a highly concentrated, synthetically produced and ultra-potent form of glutamic acid, was born.
When public opinion turned against MSG starting in the 1960s (baby food used to contain it!), food manufacturers sought more natural alternatives. This spawned the MSG industry with dozens of confusing names and slightly altered forms that still imparted the same flavors and sensations but without the same stigma and side effects.
And that brings us to yeast extract, also called hydrolyzed yeast or autolyzed yeast.
Is Yeast Extract a Hidden form of MSG?
The direct answer to the question of whether yeast extract is actually just MSG, google notwithstanding, is a resounding no. I know I am going against a lot of wellness and health blogs on this one. But this is the reality of this much-maligned and misunderstood food additive.
Sorry friends, but yeast extract ISN’T MSG.
Now, this is not to say that autolyzed yeast extract (aka hydrolyzed yeast) is good or bad for you. The point is that these are completely different things, made in completely different ways. Most importantly, they deliver very different forms and concentrations of glutamates.
Yeast extract contains glutamates, just like the natural glutamate in bone broth and aged cheeses. However, it also contains other compounds that contribute to its unique flavor.
MSG, on the other hand, is a highly concentrated, synthetic and processed form of glutamic acid. It is currently made by bacterial fermentation, and nothing else. The issues with the safety and side effects of MSG are well known including obesity and headaches among others (1).
(Hydrolyzed) Autolyzed Yeast Extract is NOT MSG
But yeast extract isn’t MSG, just like moonlight isn’t sunlight. It contains sunlight but is a very different light. Whole Foods, while not a good authority on some topics such as canola oil, has an excellent article on hydrolyzed yeast (extract). It identifies the differences from MSG in very clear language.
The term “glutamate” refers to a number of forms of glutamic acid, an amino acid found naturally in many foods (and in our bodies). Cheese, milk, meat, peas, seaweed and mushrooms are a few of the foods containing the highest levels of natural glutamate, and this substance is largely responsible for the phenomenon of umami, the “fifth taste” of savory, meaty foods. In fact, the discovery of the link between glutamates and savory flavors led the Japanese food scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 to the commercial development of monosodium glutamate. MSG is a synthetically derived and highly concentrated flavor enhancer that is almost completely made up of glutamates. It’s so powerful that just a few drops can drastically change the flavor of a dish.
As the 60 Minutes story exposed, it’s also so powerfully concentrated that it can cause severe reactions in people who are hypersensitive to it. While the scientific basis of the set of symptoms known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” has been debated and doubted by many, the phenomenon has caused a lot of people to carefully and diligently avoid MSG. A number of consumer groups have claimed that certain food ingredients, such as autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein, are MSG in disguise. They are not. Autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed proteins, among other ingredients, are completely natural ingredients that happen to be have substantial amounts of glutamates, but nowhere near the concentration found in MSG (2).
Yeast Extract: Glutamates vs MSG
So, what does this mean? Some individuals are sensitive to both MSG and various yeast extracts. But many people who are sensitive to MSG are not sensitive to yeast and other forms of glutamates. Why? Should we even be worried about glutamates, to begin with? Industry (of course) says no, but the issue is more complicated than that.
As mentioned above, glutamates are naturally occurring in a wide range of foods, especially if fermented or slowly cooked or simmered. Also, traditional cultures sometimes prepared foods in such a way to purposefully INCREASE the concentration of glutamates. Clearly, ancestral societies recognized the benefits of natural glutamate in the diet.
Risks of Too Much Glutamate
However, the widespread presence of MSG in processed foods allows us to unnaturally INCREASE the amount of glutamate (both synthetic and natural) we can consume at one time. In other words, processed foods containing MSG permit us to get addicted and/or overdose on it for lack of a better word.
There are a few risks with this increase. One, as Stephan Guyenet discusses in his book, The Hungry Brain, is that such high reward foods can short circuit our brain’s appetite and body weight regulatory systems. Dr. Russell Blaylock MD talks about this in his book Excitotoxins. MSG kills brain cells, most notably in the hypothalamus located in the brain stem. The hypothalamus is a significant player in overall control of metabolism and the endocrine system.
But lots of foods can do that, many of which don’t contain any glutamates. Second, some people are sensitive to glutamates, even if they are not sensitive to MSG. Glutamate sensitive individuals can react badly to a wide range of foods, such as strong aged cheeses, long-simmered homemade stocks, and foods that contain yeast extracts.
This inherent sensitivity, particularly for those with leaky gut, is why the GAPS Diet includes only briefly cooked meat stocks for a period of time until some healing has occurred.
What to Do if you are Sensitive to Glutamate
Besides gut imbalance, why else would a person be sensitive to glutamates? Genetics appears to play a large role as well. Some of us are better at handling glutamates than others, just like some are better at converting beta carotene to vitamin A than others.
Note also that glutamate sensitivity can develop with excessive exposure. Someone who is otherwise not overly sensitive may become so after a week of eating lots of foods that contain it. After the body works through the backlog after a period of avoidance, the sensitivity is likely to lessen or even disappear.
Yeast Extract: To Eat or Not To Eat?
What does all this mean in the final analysis? Is it wise to avoid common foods containing yeast extract, autolyzed yeast or hydrolyzed yeast?
First of all, for those who are not sensitive, foods that contain yeast extracts or other natural forms of glutamates are not a concern in moderation. The main issue is that a lot of foods that contain MSG or yeast extracts are highly processed pseudo-foods. And, these are the types of foods that people tend to have problems with portion control anyway. For this reason, avoidance is a smart idea if you find it difficult to eat small amounts only occasionally. No doubt, these types of foods can be quite addictive.
For already sensitive individuals, an individualized call about what foods to eat and which to avoid is necessary and important. The assistance of a trained practitioner is a good idea if you are having trouble identifying this on your own. The tricky part is that a reaction to natural glutamate and/or synthetic MSG can sometimes be delayed by up to 24-72 hours. This can make it difficult to assess sensitivity accurately.
For healthy individuals, glutamates play a vital role both in good health and good hearth (food). Avoiding only the synthetic type of MSG is necessary in most cases, which yeast extract is most definitely not.