The Health Risks of Beer Yeast? When Economic Realities Dictate Conciliatory Measures

Jean Michelin (peinture s.d.)

The bustling streets of Paris in the seventeenth century set the stage for a fierce debate on an unlikely topic: the use of beer yeast in bread-making. This debate, reported in the 1671 edition of the Journal des Sçavans [1] by Jean Gallois, member of the Academy of Sciences and editor of the journal, was not confined to private kitchens and bakeries but extended into the public realms of health care, economic interests, and legal decisions. The stakes were high where bread was concerned in seventeenth-century France. What a surprise!

At the heart of the debate was a simple question: is bread made with beer yeast (“levure de bière”) less healthy than bread made with traditional sourdough, or simple leaven (“franc levain”)?[2] The issue was not only a matter of culinary curiosity but of public health. The use of beer yeast, introduced recently (only 50 years prior to the debate, according to our scientific reporter), was seen as potentially harmful. Mr. de la Reynie, the lieutenant general of the police, received complaints and consulted the Faculty of Medicine in Paris on the subject. The faculty confirmed the health risk and banned beer yeast in a collegial decision officially released on March 24, 1668 (p. 7). However, the use of beer yeast had already become widespread, due to its economic benefits. It allowed bakers to produce lighter and, according to some, more delicious bread faster and at a lower cost. This made it an attractive option for Parisian bakers, who were reluctant to revert to the more labor-intensive traditional sourdough, which produced heavier and denser bread at a slower pace. Nevertheless, the poor reputation of beer yeast and its official ban led some Parisians, notably cabaret keepers, to buy their bread outside of Paris, specifically in Gonesse, now a county in the region of Val-d’Oise.

The loss of earnings felt by local bakers was palpable, prompting them to approach the procureur through Mr. de la Reynie. Justice got involved, ordering what we would nowadays call a counter-expertise. Six doctors of medicine and five notable bourgeois were consulted. Four out of the six medical specialists approved the beer yeast ban; the bourgeois failed to reach a consensus. The arguments in favor of the ban included, among others, the recommendation made by a college of 80 doctors of medicine, and the status of beer yeast as a waste product (“excrement”) of beer production, laden with contaminants from inferior quality grains and unsanitary water (pp. 8-9). However, the way our reporter, Gallois, details the arguments in favor of beer yeast suggests he clearly supported its continued use (pp. 9-11). He cites both academic and non-academic opinions, inlcuding those of the famous printer Antoine Vitré, a defender of beer yeast who claimed that, at 81 years old, he had always consumed it and never encountered any health problems. Even the Gallic ancestors were invoked in the debate to justify its use. Some Parisians were obviously determined to uphold the quick production and delivery of their light and soft bread.

The final juridical verdict that resulted from the counter-expertise authorised the continued use of beer yeast, provided it was fresh and uncontaminated (“fraische, & non corrompuë”). It also banned importing bread from outside Paris. This seemingly balanced decision was, in fact, a blank check for Parisian bakers. It was practically impossible for public authorities to monitor the bakeries and verify that the yeast used was fresh and pure. Amateurs of heavier and firmer bread thus lost a gourmand battle, regardless of the fact that the academic world had sided with them. According to Gallois, yet another more recent study found beer yeast to be unhealthy (p. 12). However, this new study, likely due to its potentially detrimental economic impact, seemed to not resonate beyond academia—a familiar scenario, some academic readers of this blog post might gather.



[1] Le Journal des sçavans, Paris, Chez Jean Cusson, 1671, p. 6-12.

[2] For the distinction between “franc levain” (simple leaven) and “levure de bière” (beer yeast), I rely on Gallois: “For the clarification of this question, one must know that there are two types of leaven. The one most commonly used, called ‘simple leaven’, is, as everyone knows, just dough made with water and flour, and stored until it turns sour. The other, called yeast, is the froth that beer throws off during its fermentation. ‘Simple leaven’ acts more slowly, inflates the dough less, and results in a denser and firmer bread. Yeast ferments the dough in less time, inflates it considerably, and the bread made from it is light, delicate, and very tender”

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Mouhamadoul Khaly Wélé (May 21, 2024). The Health Risks of Beer Yeast? When Economic Realities Dictate Conciliatory Measures. NOTCOM. Retrieved July 22, 2024 from

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