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Once a niche food if there ever was one, nutritional yeast—or “nooch,” as the cool kids call it—has become all the rage lately, thanks to a swell of enthusiasm for plant-based eating. Its recent Insta-stardom has the non-vegan world curious as to what it is and if it does indeed make everything it touches taste like cheese. Here’s what you need to know about this wonder ingredient that deserves a spot in your spice rack.
What Is Nutritional Yeast?
Not to be confused with brewer’s yeast or the active dried yeast used to make bread and pizza crust, nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of the microorganism Saccharomyces cerevisiae with no leavening powers (please, don’t try to make a loaf of sourdough with it). It’s produced by culturing the yeast on a sugar-rich medium, such as molasses, for several days. After this growth period, the yeast is heated (i.e., pasteurized) and then dried for packaging. Since yeasts are members of the fungi family, like mushrooms, nutritional yeast is most certainly appropriate for use by vegans.
Why So Cheesy?
Even if it suffers from a less-than-fun name, nutritional yeast brings both savory and salty flavors to foods that are typically mild in taste. This distinctive flavor profile can largely be attributed to its abundance of naturally occurring glutamate, an amino acid that interacts with specific taste cells in the tongue to unleash umami, Parmesan-like wave of flavor. This makes the yellow flakes a good option for those who’ve ditched dairy, or for anyone who wants to add a cheesy, umami-rich punch to a savory dish.
Why It’s Good for You
True to its moniker, the hippie dust has an impressive nutrition label. For starters, with 4–5 grams of protein in a two-tablespoon serving, nutritional yeast is a pretty solid source of plant-based protein. And since it provides a full complement of essential amino acids, the flakes can be considered one of the few sources of complete protein in the plant kingdom, making it able to support the construction of bodily tissues, including muscle.
Most brands contain a whole slew of B vitamins including thiamine, niacin, and B6 to support a healthy metabolism – these nutrients are typically added during processing. In terms of key stats, a serving of the yellow flakes can deliver more than a day’s requirement for the B vitamin folate. Based on data from 4,704 American young adults, a study in Diabetes Care suggests that higher intakes of folate early in life can help lower the risk of developing diabetes as one ages, perhaps by working to lower levels of inflammation.
A notable benefit of nutritional yeast for vegans is that it’s also often very high in vitamin B12, an essential nutrient typically only found in meat, eggs, and dairy. Vitamin B12 is a big deal for producing red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system, and a deficiency can put people at risk for energy-sapping anemia. In one study, plant-only eaters who supplemented their daily diet with one tablespoon of nutritional yeast were able to restore their B12 levels if they had previously been deficient. To provide this benefit, however, nutritional yeast must be fortified with B12—like other plant foods, it doesn’t contain it naturally. So check the product label to be sure.
Aside from protein and B vitamins, nutritional yeast offers a bit of iron, potassium, and a unique type of fiber called beta-glucan, which has cholesterol-lowering properties.
And even though it tastes like cheese, nutritional yeast lacks the calorie and saturated fat density of dairy, so it could provide some waistline-trimming benefits when used as a replacement. While the exact calorie count varies by manufacturer, most brands average a mere 30 calories for two tablespoons.
Although nutritional yeast is rich in certain nutrients, it’s deficient in others—so don’t think that sprinkling it on your popcorn is going to meet all your nutritional needs. And if you’re allergic or sensitive to yeast, this cheesy seasoning is a no-go. With that said, such inactive types of yeast do not contribute to candida yeast infections or overgrowth.
Related: When and Why to Take B Vitamins
Eat It Up
Nutritional yeast comes in either powder or flake form, making it easy to sprinkle on just about anything. You can dust roasted or steamed veggies, cooked rice, mashed potatoes or cauliflower, pizza, and soups with the stuff to give them more appeal.
If you’re wishing to make a vegan version of a meal that includes melted cheese such as mac and cheese, creamy alfredo pasta, or Caesar dressing, you probably can turn to trusty nutritional yeast to help get the job done. A common kitchen hack by food bloggers is to blend nutritional yeast with soaked cashews and seasonings to make a plant-based “cheese” sauce for nachos. It can also lend a distinctive Parmesanesque flavor to pestos and blended dips.
Nutritional yeast should be stashed in a cool, dark place to preserve its flavor and nutrition. When properly stored, it can last up to two years.