All you ever wanted to know about nutritional yeast and its health benefits

Nutritional yeast -- one of the healthiest ingredients people aren't already eating -- is finally getting the attention it deserves

Nutritional yeast -- one of the healthiest ingredients people aren't already eating -- is finally getting the attention it deserves

Nutritional yeast is finally getting the attention it deserves. Here's why health experts are so enthusiastic about this tasty, nutritious ingredient

Some people – even health enthusiasts among them – have never heard of nutritional yeast. Others have heard of nutritional yeast, but never made this ingredient feel at home in their pantry. It’s hardly surprising. Despite nutrition experts’ enthusiasm and the passion for this ingredient in the vegan community, nutritional yeast is not that easy to find, and many cooks don’t know what to do with it.

This is fast changing.

Nutritional yeast is finally getting the spotlight.

Search interest has risen 100 percent in the last year alone, according to Google Trends, perhaps in tow with rising interest in plant-based and vegan food, and Millennials’ and Gen Z’s eagerness for natural, functional ingredients.

Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott recently listed it as top trend we should thank hippies for, and Well and Good named it the latest “old-is-new-again craze.” But despite trending, nutritional yeast is no passing fad – it has well deserved lasting power.

So while it now makes appearances in menus in mainstream restaurants, one of the top search queries is still “What is nutritional yeast?”

Let’s dive in.

What is nutritional yeast?

Yeasts are single celled fungi – relatives of the mushroom family. Yeasts have been humans’ assistants in food preparation for many thousands of years, aiding us in the process of leavening bread, wine making and fermentation.

Nutritional yeast is a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, selected especially for its nutritional value. The yeast is grown on a nutrient medium, and when ready, it is deactivated, harvested, washed and dried.

It's called “nutritional” yeast for a reason: It provides B-complex vitamins, complete protein, fiber, iron and other vitamins and minerals. Some — but not all — nutritional yeast brands are a reliable source of B12, which they’re fortified with. More on that later.

What does it taste like?

Most people find nutritional yeast’s flavor nutty, smooth, pleasant, cheesy, a little reminiscent of Parmesan cheese, which it replaces in many vegan recipes. Don’t confuse nutritional yeast with brewer’s yeast. While nutritional yeast is produced especially for its nutrition profile and flavor, brewer’s is a by-product of the brewing industry, and even after the bitter taste of hops is removed, doesn’t taste like nutritional yeast.

What’s so nutritious about nutritional yeast?

Nutritional yeast delivers a long list of important nutrients.

Vitamins and minerals

Nutritional yeast supply many vitamins and minerals, especially B-complex vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folate, and specific brands also provide B12, a vitamin that is present only in animal source foods, and therefore missing from strict plant-based (vegan) diets.

B12 is one of the only vitamins that doctors recommend supplementation with, and that advice is given not just to vegans and vegetarians, as B12 deficiency is not uncommon, even in our times of plenty.

Minerals include iron, selenium, magnesium and zinc.

Protein

Nutritional yeast is a great protein source, and is more than 50 percent protein by weight. It provides complete protein — containing all 9 essential amino acids that our body can’t produce on its own and therefore need to be consumed. It’s an excellent and planet-friendly, sustainable protein.

Fiber and beta glucan

Nutritional yeast is a good source of fiber, including beta-1,3 glucan, mannan, and trehalose fiber.

Beta glucan is a soluble fiber, found in the cell walls of yeast, mushrooms and some whole grains (especially barley and oats). Beta glucans have many demonstrated health benefits, and show promise in improving heart health (by changing the lipid profile and reducing LDL cholesterol), boosting immunity, and fighting infections. Beta glucan is the reason barley and oats gained the Food and Drug Administration’s approved health claim for lowering the risk of heart disease.

Beta glucans from different food sources have molecular variations. Beta-glucans derived from yeast are slightly different from those of oats, and yeast derived glucans have been studied and found especially effective for specific conditions. Beta glucan from yeast can modulate and stimulate the immune system, can help fight infectious diseases, such as bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic diseases and several studies have proven that it can reduce the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections – the common cold.

In a recent study 174 1-4 year-old kids in a daycare setting were randomly assigned to consume yeast beta glucan or a placebo for 12 weeks (this was a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled study, the gold standard of clinical trials.) There were fewer cases of the common cold among the treated group: 47% of children in the yeast beta glucan group reported one or more episode of an infectious illness compared with 85 percent of kids in the placebo group. The duration of common cold symptoms was also significantly shorter in the in the yeast beta glucan group.

Yeast derived beta glucan proved effective in a trial involving 8-12 year olds with chronic respiratory disorders — it improved symptoms and kids’ saliva’s immune fighting ability.

Yeast beta glucan was also tested on 18-53 year-old marathon runners. Running a marathon is a stressful event; stress reduces the immune response, and these athletes are prone to upper respiratory tract infections during the recovery period after the race. Yeast derived beta glucan not only reduced the incidence of infections in this placebo-controlled double blind study, the athletes also reported improved mood and less fatigue.

The benefit seems to extend to other sources of stress, too: Yeast beta glucan proved effective in a placebo controlled study in stressed women, reducing rates in infectious disease and improving mood. 

Why would yeast beta glucan fiber help?

The beta glucan fiber is part of the cell wall of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s a molecule that’s recognized by our immune system, and exposure to it through food may both activate and control our immune response — it’s an immune-response modifier that helps our body’s immune system mount an immune response that's just right.

Isn’t nutritional yeast just for vegetarians and vegans?

Vegans and vegetarians adopted it first, but that doesn’t mean that nutritional yeast is reserved for cheese and animal-product avoiders. If you like umami — the delicious savory taste typical of cheese, meat and other proteins — and if you’d like to capitalize on the health benefits mentioned above, nutritional yeast is the pantry staple you’ve been missing.

How do I use nutritional yeast?

Rebecca Lewis, head dietitian at HelloFresh, uses nutritional yeast to replace dairy, and says that if you didn’t know any better, “you would totally think it’s cheese; the taste is so similar”. Rebecca likes to sprinkle nutritional yeast flakes directly on popcorn, blend into pesto to replace the cheese, combine into pasta sauce, or mix into scrambled eggs.

Natalie Slater, vegan cookbook author and blogger, says: “I love nutritional yeast (we call it "nooch") and use it ALL the time in my cooking. I first discovered it when I first went vegan more than 10 years ago — back then people were shaking it onto popcorn to make "cheese" popcorn. Since then, nooch has lent itself to all sorts of amazing recipes. Vegans love it because it's a great source of B-12, and because it has a cheesy flavor.” Her nutritional yeast based Vegan Cheese Sauce recipe is the basis of many other dishes, from nachos, to lasagna.

Dietician, chef and food blogger Julie Andrews is not a vegan. “Living in the cheese state (Wisconsin), it's difficult to ever say no to cheese, but nutritional yeast is an amazing, and nutritious, way to still get a cheesy flavor in recipes. It's great on popcorn, in 'cheese' sauce, in mashed cauliflower or potatoes, in soups or on veggie chips.” Try her Cheesy Zucchini Fritters recipe.

And whether you’re trying to eat less animal products for health, ethical or environmental causes, PETA has good recipes using nutritional yeast to make favorite dishes vegan and healthier, like Ashley Palmer’s tofu scramble, and an easy mac-n-cheese.

You’ll find general agreement about nutritional yeast’s versatility, so experiment freely with this ingredient that’s a boon to health and is kind to the taste buds.

Dr. Ayala