What the heck is nutritional yeast? Vegan ingredients uncovered

Nutritional yeast? Tempeh? Egg replacer? Sometimes making the switch to an all-vegan, or mostly-vegan diet can feel like learning to speak another language. Many ingredients used in vegan dishes are ones which you may not have heard of before, and if you have heard of them, you're probably not entirely sure what to do with them - and that's ok! Learning how to eat a healthy, balanced diet as a vegan can take some time, and it definitely means changing the way you eat and how you think about food. We're here to shed some light on a few vegan ingredients that may seem a little obscure to the uninitiated - and we'll show you how to use them too, so keep reading!

Nutritional yeast

What the heck? Most us don't have a clue what nutritional yeast is, and if you've never followed a vegan diet, or lived with somebody who has, there's probably no reason why nutritional yeast would ever feature on your radar.

What is it?

Nutritional yeast is made from Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, a single-celled organism which grows on molasses. It is washed and heat-dried to 'deactivate' it and you'll find it's an excellent source of B-vitamins. You probably won't be able to find nutritional yeast in your local supermarket on your weekly shop, but it's readily available online and in health food stores - it may also be called 'vegetarian support formula'. Available as powder or flakes, it is used to provide a savoury, nutty, cheesy flavour.

What are its health benefits?

Nutritional yeast is packed with B-vitamins, which many vegans can be deficient in and it's also a great source of folic acid, zinc, protein and selenium. It's low in fat and gluten-free with no added preservatives or sugars.

How to use it

Add it to sauces, soups, gravies and other dishes for extra flavour. Add a bit of the yeast to eggless omelettes or vegan 'cheese' sauces for a cheesy, eggy flavour. Make some baked 'cheesy' kale chips, sprinkle it on popcorn, stir it into mash or add to pasta dishes.


Seitan has gained popularity in recent years, particularly in the US, but it's likely that you haven't even heard of it!

What is it?

Seitan is a wheat gluten often used as a substitute for meat in many Asian restaurants - you'll often see dishes included seitan refer to it as 'mock duck'. In fact, seitan has been used for over 1,000 years by Buddhist monks as a vegetarian source of protein. You'll find it in the fridge (usually in a tub) at most health food stores or online. Or you could always make your own by using vital wheat gluten - but this is fairly time consuming. Because seitan has a similar look and texture to meat, it's a great way for vegans to make 'meat' dishes that friends and family will enjoy.

What are its health benefits?

Seitan is high in protein yet low in calories, and it's also a great source of vitamin C, riboflavin, thiamin, niacin and iron (1).

How to use it

Use seitan to replace meat in a variety of dishes. Cook it quickly in a wok with a splash of tamari or soy sauce and add some veggies for a stir fry, or grill it for a smoky flavour and use in wraps or sandwiches - it's great for fajitas! It can also be used to add a protein boost to veggie pizzas, or as a meat substitute in Thai curries or soups and stews.

Egg replacer

Whilst you wouldn't use egg replacer to make, say, an omelette, it can be really helpful for vegan baking!

What is it?

Baking without eggs means you'll need some kind of egg replacement - silken tofu, bananas or flax seeds are all popular choices, but for many people, egg replacer powder is the easiest option. You'll usually find this powder in packages in health food stores and if you live near a larger supermarket, it may also be available in the health food/gluten-free aisle. Egg replacers are usually a mixture of starches and/or binding ingredients such as xanthan gum. Common egg replacers include corn starch, potato starch, soy powder and flax seed. If you need to make your own, try replacing one egg with 2 tbsp cornstarch and 1 tbsp water, or 1 tbsp ground flaxseed and 1 tbsp water.

What are its health benefits?

Using some egg replacers can provide health benefits. For example, if you're watching your cholesterol, using ground flaxseed could help. Flaxseeds are cholesterol-free (as opposed to eggs, which contain around 186mg cholesterol per egg). Flaxseeds also contain omega-3 fatty acids, essential for a healthy brain, and they're loaded with fibre - 2 tbsp flaxseeds provides 3.8g of dietary fibre, to help fill you up. But flaxseeds are lower in protein than eggs and don't contain vitamin B12, vitamin A or choline.

How to use it

Don't use egg replacer to make scrambled eggs on toast! Use it to replace eggs in baked goods - anything from cookies and muffins to home-baked breads and tarts. It might take some time to get the ratios right, so practice makes perfect.

Soya products

What are they?

Soya milk, yoghurt and cheeses have increased in populartiy in recent years and can now be found in the chillers at most supermarkets. Textured vegetable protein, tempeh and tofu are used by many vegetarians and vegans as meat subsitutes. Tofu is a soft, white bean curd made from soy beans, whilst tempeh originates from Indonesia and is made from deep-fried, fermented soya beans. You'll find both tofu and tempeh in most supermarkets or health food stores.

What are the health benefits?

Soya products are high in protein - 1/2 a cup of cooked tofu contains 10.1g of protein, whilst 1/2 a cup of tempeh contains 15.4g. This makes tofu and tempeh a great way for vegans to get enough protein in their diets. Soy products also contain plenty of insoluble fibre, essential for healthy gut and regular bowel movements, as well as phytoestrogens called isoflavones. There is research to suggest that eating soya could reduce the risk of breast cancer and improve PMS and endometriosis symptoms by evening out a progesterone-oestrogen imbalance in the body (2). Phytosterols in soya beans can also inhibit the absorption of cholesterol and help to lower cholesterol.

How to use them

Use tempeh and tofu in place of meat in all your favourite recipes such as stews, curries and stir fries, as well as Asian-style salads and noodle dishes! Replace dairy products with soy milk and cheese, or use soy beans in soups and stews for a protein boost.


Often used in place of regular soy sauce, tamari is a popular vegan alternative.

What is it?

Tamari is a type of soy sauce which contains little or no wheat, making it the perfect alternative to regular soy sauce for those avoiding gluten. Tamari is a Japanese form of soy sauce which is made as a byproduct of miso. It has a richer flavour and darker colour than the usual Chinese soy sauce we're used to, and it also tastes less salty.

What are its health benefits?

Because most tamari is wheat free (although you should always check the label), it is ideal for anyone who is intolerant to gluten.

How to use it

Use tamari in place of regular soy sauce in marinades and sauces, to season stir fries and noodle dishes. Because of its milder, less salty flavour, it is ideal for use in dipping sauces.

The next time anybody mentions some of the more obscure vegan ingredients they rely on as part of their diet - or the next time you pop into a health food store - you'll no longer be wondering what on earth they're talking about! Adding these to your vegan or vegetarian diet, or using them as part of a healthy diet, is a great idea!

READ THIS NEXT: Beat the Monday blues with 19 delicious vegan breakfasts

Works cited:

  1. http://www.mitoku.com/products/seitan/healthbenefits.html

  2. http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/ingredient-focus-soya

Author By Paula Beaton
Date On 24th Mar 2015 at 11:52

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