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What Is Nutritional Yeast? Is This Secret Plant-Based Ingredient Good for You?

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10 min read
Summary

Nutritional yeast is nutty, cheesy, & unique. Learn all about this plant-powered secret!

You’ll find nutritional yeast in many plant-based recipes and kitchens. It may look like flakes you would feed to a pet fish, but it’s not fish food! What is nutritional yeast? What benefits can you get from eating it? And can it be a healthy addition to your meals?


If an Oscar existed for terrible brand marketing, the person who invented the name “nutritional yeast” would get one.

When newbies first encounter this product, they never think, “OMG, this sounds fabulous! I’m gonna add this stuff to everything now! Can I get it in 50-pound sacks?”

Yet you’ll probably find nutritional yeast — often called “nooch” for short — in the fridge or pantry of most plant-based eaters. I even know people who carry a jar or shaker in their purse or car.

So what is nutritional yeast? How is it made? Why are some people fanatical about this ingredient? And also: Can you overdose on it? And who should consume it, and who shouldn’t?

Wonder no more. Here’s a deep dive into the topic to bring you everything you ever wanted to know about nutritional yeast.

What Is Nutritional Yeast?

What is nutritional yeast?

Plant-based eaters use nutritional yeast as a condiment and as an ingredient to add a savory, cheesy, nutty taste to a myriad of dishes.

It’s often used to make bland dishes flavorful and delicious and to add a burst of umami to almost anything. And it adds an appealing, yellow-orange color to recipes.

Nutritional yeast is also a rich source of important vitamins and minerals, protein, and fiber.

Plus most nutritional yeasts don’t contain any animal-derived ingredients. This makes nooch a useful alternative to dairy cheese in certain dishes.

How Is It Made?

Nutritional yeast is the same species of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) used to make beer, bread, or kombucha. But it’s a different end product.

One major difference is that, for the most part, people use baker’s and brewer’s yeast in their active form. Nutritional yeast is inactive, so it has no leavening ability. In other words, it won’t make dough rise — and it won’t reproduce inside you, even if you eat it raw.

Nutritional yeast is made by growing S. cerevisiae on a sugar-rich molasses medium. Then, it is deactivated with heat, washed, pasteurized, dried, and crumbled.

It’s almost always fortified with nutrients, particularly B vitamins, before ending up on store shelves. Unfortified versions are also available.

In the lingo of yeast professionals, nutritional yeast is a primary-grown yeast. That means it’s cultivated specifically for its nutritional value and not as a by-product or a means to another recipe.

Which pretty much answers the next question.

Does Nutritional Yeast Offer Health Benefits?

Not only does nutritional yeast taste good, but it can also be good for you!

Nooch has an unassuming appearance you might associate with fish food. But it’s packed with several nutrients that are in short supply in the modern Western diet.

Mini-disclaimer: Though exact nutrients and their amounts can vary between brands, most nutritional yeasts have a similar makeup. Take a peek at the ingredient label to be sure a particular brand contains what you’re looking for.

B Vitamins

Fortified nutritional yeast is a B vitamin powerhouse.

One tablespoon contains 30 to 180% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI) for various B vitamins. Some of these form naturally as yeast grows, and others — especially vitamins B6 and B12 — are added through fortification.

B vitamins are involved in important bodily processes, such as metabolism, energy production, DNA synthesis, brain function, hormone regulation, and making blood cells.

People who eat a plant-based diet might be looking to nutritional yeast as a source of vitamin B12. Though fortified versions will contain B12, it’s usually not enough to rely upon for all your needs, so other sources are still important. (For more about how to how to get the B12 you need, read this article about key supplements we recommend.)

Protein

Nutritional yeast is over 50% protein by weight.

In fact, it contains more protein per calorie than any meat product out there! In only a ¼ cup, you’ll find eight grams of protein, three grams of fiber, very little sodium, and no sugar.

Nutritional yeast is particularly rich in lysine and tryptophan. These amino acids have received particularly good press. Lysine may prevent cold sores. And tryptophan gets converted into the “good mood and sleep” hormone, serotonin.

Minerals

Nutritional yeast contains a wealth of trace minerals.

Some of these include zinc, selenium, magnesium, molybdenum, phosphorus, and potassium. These are all essential for good health. They also support a strong immune system and active metabolism.

Yeast is also a rich source of chromium, which your body needs to regulate blood sugar. For this reason, it can be beneficial for people with prediabetes, diabetes, or anyone concerned about balancing their blood sugar levels.

Antioxidants

Nutritional yeast contains potent antioxidants, which help to prevent cell damage that can lead to many chronic diseases.

One potent antioxidant, in particular, is glutathione. It can help protect your cells and eliminate toxins from your body.

Glutathione plays an important role in cellular defense mechanisms. Nutritional yeast contains around 2.5 mg of glutathione per gram — which is a very concentrated amount.

Science Says Nutritional Yeast Has Other Benefits, Too

vegan parmesan cheese recipe
Minimalist Baker’s plant-based parmesan “cheese” made with nutritional yeast.

These little yellow flakes are much more than an easy way to sprinkle vitamins and minerals into your diet.

Antibacterial and Antiviral Properties

Because of its antibacterial and antiviral properties, nutritional yeast is the fourth most prescribed natural mono-preparation in Germany. (It’s beaten only by Ginkgo, St. John’s Wort, and Horse Chestnut.)

It contains certain carbohydrates — including trehalose and beta glucans — that can fight infection and support immune function.

Trehalose is a disaccharide that helps maintain the health of brain cells. (A disaccharide, if you’re looking to geek out on the chemistry, is a sugar molecule consisting of two monosaccharides with a water molecule removed. If chemistry isn’t your thing, don’t worry. You don’t have to say “disaccharide” three times backward to eat good food!)

Beta-glucans, in particular, have been shown to have antitumor, anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity, anti-allergic, and anti-osteoporotic abilities.

A 2007 study published in Lifestyle Science focused on pigs. It showed the ability of beta-glucan and alpha-mannan to protect against infection by boosting immunity, fighting bacteria, and inhibiting harmful toxins.

It Can Help Lower Blood Cholesterol Levels

The beta-glucans in nutritional yeast may also help lower blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. (This is good news for your heart!)

This effect has been researched primarily in oats (another rich source of beta-glucans), but yeast has similar effects.

The impact of yeast on cholesterol has actually been of scientific interest for a long time. In a small 1999 study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 15 obese men with high blood cholesterol levels consumed 15 grams of yeast-derived beta-glucans every day for eight weeks. They experienced an 8% reduction in their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels by the end of the study.

Other more recent studies have found a similar impact on the cholesterol levels of mice.

It Can Boost Immune Function

Studies show that the immune function of elite athletes is typically impaired by strenuous exercise. This makes them more likely (in the short run) to get sick. Nutritional yeast to the rescue! In one study, athletes who ate just ¾ teaspoon of nutritional yeast per day experienced improved immune function.

Another study focused on marathon runners who consumed a spoonful of nutritional yeast daily. As a result, it reduced post-race incidence of upper respiratory infections. It also increased the runners’ overall physical AND mental health.

(I’m definitely no elite athlete, but I know how worn out I can be after a hard workout. After doing this research, I’m going to be sprinkling on more nutritional yeast. And since I love the taste, it’s not like I’m going to have to force myself.)

Are There Any Health Risks Associated With Eating Nutritional Yeast?

Nutritional yeast offers a lot of nutrients. But is there such a thing as getting too much nutrition from one source?

Maybe. But as long as you’re not piling every meal high with a mountain of yellow flakes, overdosing is more than likely not a problem.

There is a phenomenon that can occur from eating vitamin B2, or riboflavin, in excess: neon yellow urine.

Nutritional yeast provides 160% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin B2 in one tablespoon. B vitamins are water soluble. That means when you eat them in large amounts, your kidneys will excrete whatever your body doesn’t need. This results in yellower-than-normal, vitamin B-rich urine. For some people, the color change can be pretty dramatic.

That’s right, not only do you have to make a mental note of when you eat beets (no, you’re not bleeding to death — you just ate beets last night!), you also may want to keep track of any substantial nutritional yeast consumption. That way you won’t freak out the next day by a stream that practically glows in the dark.

Why Some People Should Probably Avoid Nutritional Yeast

You probably want to avoid nutritional yeast if you have a yeast allergy.

Similarly, if you have celiac disease or severe gluten intolerance, you might want to call the manufacturer and inquire about their testing processes. Nutritional yeast is occasionally grown using a medium that contains grains. Therefore, cross-contamination with gluten can occur. You can also look for a certified gluten-free brand.

Additionally, individuals with Crohn’s disease should avoid nutritional yeast. A 1988 study found that, after placing Crohn’s patients on a yeast-free diet, even reintroducing a quarter-teaspoon caused significant recurrence of symptoms. In 1992, another study found that Crohn’s patients with elevated yeast antibodies had higher disease activity when given small yeast capsules.

Lastly, some nutritional yeast varieties come fortified with folic acid, which is the synthetic form of the vitamin B9. (Folate is the natural form.) While B9 can be beneficial, folate and folic acid function very differently in the body. There are some good reasons to avoid folic acid, especially if you have a MTHFR genetic mutation (which causes impaired folic acid metabolism).

Nutritional Yeast Myths

You may also run across a couple of misconceptions about nutritional yeast if you surf too many evidence-deficient websites.

Nutritional Yeast and Candidiasis

One myth is that consuming too much of it will cause yeast overgrowth in your body. This doesn’t happen because nutritional yeast is inactivate, and it doesn’t contain Candida albicans.

Nutritional Yeast and MSG

Because of its natural umami flavor, nutritional yeast is sometimes thought to contain monosodium glutamate (MSG).

MSG is an excitotoxin that can cause migraine headaches. Too much MSG consumption can actually lead to brain damage, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to eat it by the pound (or even by the microgram!).

But nutritional yeast does not contain MSG. The glutamate in yeast that gives it an umami taste is bound to other amino acids and proteins. This means that your body controls how much it absorbs and excretes.

How to Find and Use Nutritional Yeast

A hand taking popcorn out of a bowl

Now that you know all about this unique ingredient, what do you do with it?

You can find nutritional yeast in a shaker container, a bag, or from the bulk section at natural grocery stores. Depending on where I shop, I’ve found it stocked with the health foods, in the baking aisle, and even mixed in with the condiments.

To preserve its vitamins and minerals, store nutritional yeast in a cool, dry place, like your refrigerator. When stored properly, nutritional yeast can last for up to two years.

A typical serving size for nutritional yeast is one to two tablespoons. Some recipes call for ¼ to ½ cup, or even more.

Nutritional yeast offers a mildly nutty, cheesy flavor that goes well with many hot and cold dishes.

Many people use it in place of Parmesan cheese. I’ve mixed it into soups, stews, homemade bread doughs, and salad dressings. And I’ve even sprinkled it onto salad, pizza, and avocado toast.

It also works well in creamy, cashew-based cheese sauces and as a light seasoning for air-popped popcorn. Some die-hard fans even enjoy the savory flavor it adds to smoothies and even in desserts.

6 Great Recipes That Use Nutritional Yeast

Ultimate Vegan "cheese" Sauce
Image via chocolatecoveredkatie.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ultimate Vegan “Cheese” Sauce

This easy, white-bean-based sauce gets its cheesiness from nutritional yeast. Use it as a dip, a pasta sauce, or poured over cooked veggies.

Vegan Parmesan “Cheese

Here’s a quick, four-ingredient, dairy-free alternative to Parmesan cheese. It uses nooch, cashews, and seasoning.

Oil-Free Lemon Basil Pesto

You can use this pesto on sandwiches, mixed into noodle dishes, or as a dip for crackers and raw vegetables.

Vegan Mac and “Cheese”

This recipes is packed with veggies, and it’s creamy, “cheesy,” and irresistibly good!

Chef AJ’s Disappearing Lasagna

Nutritional yeast is used to make the cheesy layers in this lasagna, which is perfect for a hearty and healthy family meal.

Healthy Mushroom Fettuccine Alfredo

Nooch makes this savory Alfredo sauce possible. This recipe makes a great alternative to the butter, cream, and cheese in traditional alfredo recipes.

How to Choose a High-Quality Nutritional Yeast

When it comes to quality and safety, you should keep a couple of things in mind when choosing which nutritional yeast brand is for you:

1) Some nutritional yeasts may use beet molasses, or other mediums that were genetically engineered, to grow.

(About 90% of the sugar beets in the United States are the result of genetic engineering.) Some nutritional yeast brands state that they are non-GMO. Unless they are certified organic, it is possible that these may still have, in some cases, grown on a substrate that had GMO origins.

Many tell us that independent testing finds no presence of any GMO protein or DNA in the yeast. And some say that it isn’t found in the substrate, either.

I’m inclined to believe them. But it’s also possible that this is because the substrate is highly refined. And it could conceivably still have come from source materials, like sugar beets, which were genetically engineered.

I haven’t been able to get a direct answer about this from the manufacturers I’ve contacted, but this could be a point of concern for some non-GMO purists. If you want to be 100% sure, you may want to go with a certified organic option, like this nutritional yeast from Starwest Botanicals.

2) Many nutritional yeasts are fortified with synthetic vitamins.

While this fortification may provide some helpful nutrients, I am concerned especially about the use of folic acid.

If that doesn’t bother you, Bragg makes a delicious fortified, non-GMO nutritional yeast. If you want one that’s not fortified, Sari Foods, Foods Alive, and Dr. Joel Fuhrman all make non-GMO options that are free of added vitamins.

Nutritional Yeast for the Win

I think of nutritional yeast as the hush-hush culinary secret of plant-based eaters.

Not only does it offer an abundance of vital nutrients, but it also boosts immunity and can help protect us from diseases. And on top of all that, when used well, it adds some pretty fantastic flavor!

So keep a bottle in your car, purse, briefcase, or backpack, and become a nooch-evangelist to your friends. Once they’re hooked, they’ll understand how all those veggies you eat can be so delicious!

Tell us in the comments:

  • Does this help you understand, what is nutritional yeast? Do you still have questions?

  • What do YOU think of nutritional yeast?

  • If you eat it, do you have a favorite brand or a favorite way to use it?

Fact or Fiction? Nutritional yeast boasts health benefits beyond its impressive nutrient profile.

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