Have you ever tasted a dairy-free “cheese” and wondered how it gets its addictively tangy flavor? It’s a secret ingredient that the vegan community’s known about for years called nutritional yeast. Yep, it’s similar to the stuff that’s used to make bread rise! But nutritional yeast benefits go far beyond boosting the taste of plant-based foods. These flavorful flakes (which are gluten-free!) are packed with nutrients our bodies crave and offer positive effects for our health.
Still not convinced about nutritional yeast (or just want to know how you can actually incorporate it into your diet)? Sarah Skovran, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in plant-based diets, sat down with HealthyWay to talk about the benefits of nutritional yeast and offer some tips on cooking with it. (Hint: It’s not just for vegan cuisine!)
What is nutritional yeast?
Let’s be honest: You probably didn’t start salivating when you first heard of nutritional yeast. The name does it no favors, but it’s actually some pretty good stuff.
“Nutritional yeast is an actual yeast grown on another substance—often molasses—then harvested, dried, and deactivated,” explains Skovran.
Is there a difference between conventional yeast and nutritional yeast? Certainly—and don’t expect nutritional yeast to give you fluffy loaves of bread. Unlike baker’s yeast (which is used in breads and pastries) and brewer’s yeast (used to brew beer), nutritional yeast is no longer living, so it won’t offer certain culinary effects.
“It won’t make liquids frothy or baked goods rise,” adds Skovran.
“Try just a couple tablespoons at a time to see if you like it without committing to a large amount.”
Typically, nutritional yeast (also known as nooch) comes in two forms: flakes and powders. It’s available at health food stores and some grocery stores, like Trader Joe’s (look for it in the baking aisle or specialty diet sections).
“When people first hear about this ingredient, which I tend to think of as a flavoring, they’re reluctant to try it. If you can get it in the bulk section, you can try just a couple tablespoons at a time to see if you like it without committing to a large amount,” Skovran says.
As for the flavor, it’s tough to describe. People generally say it’s a little bit cheesy and nutty. Nutritional yeast can also introduce that umami flavor (a savory taste, usually from broth and meat) that plant-based cuisine sometimes lacks, says Skovran.
“When people switch over to a plant-based diet, they sometimes pull all the meat and dairy out of their meals and just eat what’s left, but they don’t notice that they’re missing that umami,” she says. “For me, that flavor is key to maintaining a plant-based diet.”
This is why nutritional yeast has been a staple in most vegan kitchens for years! But once you understand the full spectrum of nutritional yeast benefits, you’ll want to stock some in your pantry—even if you don’t adhere to a plant-based diet.
What are the benefits of nutritional yeast?
On its own, nutritional yeast is a healthy, low-calorie ingredient that does the body good. But the benefits of nutritional yeast get taken to new heights when you consider the fact that almost all brands of nutritional yeast are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Here are are a few of the most compelling benefits of nutritional yeast:
1. It’s a complete protein.
It’s no surprise that protein is a critical component of a healthy diet. But not all sources of protein are created equal. The proteins in the body are made of a combination of up to 20 amino acids. Nine of those amino acids are considered “essential.” A complete protein contains all nine of those essential amino acids. While it’s tough to find a complete protein outside of animal products, one of the biggest benefits of nutritional yeast is the fact that it contains the nine essential amino acids the body needs—all from a vegan source.
“Two tablespoons of nutritional yeast contain 5 to 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand, which is a significant amount,” says Skovran.
2. It’s loaded with fiber.
The benefits of nutritional yeast also include a boost to our digestion and gut health, says Skovran. Why? It has a remarkably high fiber content, usually somewhere between two and five grams of fiber per two-tablespoon serving. According to the Mayo Clinic, fiber helps keep bowel movements regular, may reduce your risk of hemorrhoids, lowers cholesterol, and keeps your blood sugar levels in check. That’s some serious motivation to incorporate nutritional yeast into your diet.
3. It’s a vegan- and vegetarian-friendly source of B12.
For vegans and vegetarians, finding a plant-based source of B12 is the equivalent of spotting a unicorn in the wild. Fortunately, one of the benefits of nutritional yeast is that a two-tablespoon serving from many brands of the product contains a full day’s supply of this important vitamin, along with ample amounts of vitamin B6 and vitamin B2 (also called riboflavin).
“B vitamins play a big role converting food into energy. B12 is also important to the central nervous system, and if you don’t consume enough, you risk developing neurological issues that can become irreversible,” says Skovran.
4. It’s packed with vitamins and minerals.
Not into taking daily supplements? Try eating nutritional yeast. It’s fortified with tons of vitamins and minerals that will help keep you healthy. Depending on exactly which brand you choose, nutritional yeast may contain ample amounts of folate (which may help prevent certain birth defects) and zinc (an important mineral for immune function and healing), among other vitamins and minerals.
5. It adds that umami flavor to foods.
The benefits of nutritional yeast don’t stop at its nutritional composition—they also include that rich umami flavor. Making sure your food has that component can make it easier to stick with a diet that’s low in animal products, says Skovran.
But here’s another fascinating fact about umami: It may actually help you self-regulate your eating habits during meals, whether you’re eating a plant-based diet or not, according to a recent study from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Do you struggle with overeating when presented with your favorite meal? (Who doesn’t?) Toss on a little nutritional yeast and see if it helps you with portion control.
It’s clear that nutritional yeast benefits make it a valuable ingredient, but is there anyone who shouldn’t eat it?
“It’s possible to be allergic to nutritional yeast, but I’ve never personally seen it,” says Skovran.
Overall, there really aren’t any nutritional yeast dangers for most people. However, if you have a sensitivity to active yeast, your body may not tolerate nutritional yeast well. Your best bet? Check with your doctor if you have any concerns.
Using Nutritional Yeast in Your Kitchen
So you’ve bought a container of savory yeast flakes and you’re ready to add them to your diet. What’s the best way to use nutritional yeast in food?
Try substituting this savory yeast for Parmesan cheese on pastas, says Skovran. It will give you that familiar flavor and texture, but with no fat or dairy. It can also make a pleasant addition atop veggie stir-fry and leafy green salads.
“You can also include nutritional yeast as part of a spice rub if you’re grilling meat, or add it to homemade breads to give it a cheesy aftertaste,” she adds.
Umami flavors may actually help you self-regulate your eating habits during meals, whether you’re eating a plant-based diet or not.
But that’s not all: Nutritional yeast can also be used in vegan “cheese” sauces.
“A cheese sauce that I love is just a drained can of hearts of palm mixed with three to four tablespoons of nutritional yeast in a food processor,” Skovran says.
And if you’re looking to make your movie night snacks a bit healthier, sprinkle some nutritional yeast atop your popcorn. You can thank us later.
From a tasty flavor to ample vitamins and minerals, the benefits of nutritional yeast make it a worthy addition to your regular diet. Experiment by putting nutritional yeast on things you’re already eating—soon enough, you might find yourself sprinkling it on all your meals.