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What’s the Deal With Nutritional Yeast?

If you hear the term “nutritional yeast” and lose your appetite, you’re not alone. But don’t be fooled: There’s a lot to love about this ingredient (which many prefer to affectionately call “nooch”) – including taste. Here’s everything you need to know about using nutritional yeast, which is finally getting some well-deserved time in the spotlight:

What is it?

Nutritional yeast is an inactive form of yeast (a single-celled organism classified as a fungus). It’s produced when the yeast is allowed to grow or to be cultured on a source of glucose – usually molasses or sugarcane. Once the yeast grows, it’s collected, heated and dried, which permanently deactivates the yeast. (Yeast that’s used in baking bread or brewing beer, meanwhile, is not heated or dried.) Assuming it’s not mixed with anything else, nutritional yeast is gluten-free, vegan and free from major allergens. You can find nutritional yeast as a powder or, more often, in flakes.

Why use it?

Flavor and nutrition are the top two reasons to add nutritional yeast to your diet. The ingredient has a nutty, savory (aka umami) flavor thanks to its naturally-occurring glutamate – the same compounds that give foods like mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and ripe tomatoes that rich, complex taste that’s hard to put a finger on. In a word, it tastes like cheese, and can be a great substitute for the real thing if you’re allergic or sensitive to dairy or looking for an option that, gram for gram, is lower in calories and higher in protein.

Better yet, nutritional yeast is indeed nutritious. You might even say it’s one of the most nutritious “seasonings” available. Some people even use it as a supplement since it’s a source of B-complex vitamins, selenium, fiber and protein. It’s especially useful for vegans, as it’s one of the few plant-based sources of vitamin B12. Two tablespoons of nutritional yeast packs about 4 grams of protein and 30 calories.

You may see reports or claims that certain types of brewer’s yeast (which is a bit different) will help with conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes or even hay fever, but the evidence is not strong enough to recommend using it for these purposes. Though there’s preliminary clinical research suggesting that taking nutritional yeast might help with glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes and lower total cholesterol levels in certain individuals, more research is needed.

How can you use it?

Use nutritional yeast much like you’d use Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle it on popcorn, roasted vegetables or kale chips for a hint of cheesy flavor. It can also be used to make cheese-flavored sauce or pesto for pasta or vegetables. Bake it into crackers with herbs for vegan “cheese” crackers and more.

Where can you find it?

It’s easy to find nutritional yeast in most major supermarkets and well-stocked health food stores. If you don’t have access to either or prefer the convenience of shopping from wherever you are, try an online retailer. An 8-ounce bag of a national brand costs about $8 or $9, and will last you several weeks of meals if you use one-quarter cup a day.

If you’re on the fence about trying nooch, check the bulk bin area at health foods stores. This is a perfect place to start since you can get a small amount to try before going all-in with a large bag. But once you’re on board, stock up. Nutritional yeast keeps well in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator for about a year. You can even freeze it for longer storage.

Ready to jump on the trend? Try this simple recipe to get started:

Vegan Chili Cheese Popcorn (COURTESY OF MARISA MOORE)

Vegan Chili Cheese Popcorn
Servings: 4

1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder
2 tablespoons avocado oil
1/2 cup white popcorn kernels

In a small bowl, mix all ingredients from the nutritional yeast through the chipotle powder. Set aside.
Heat the avocado oil in a medium stockpot with a lid over medium-high heat.
Add the popcorn kernels and allow them to pop.
Shake the pot occasionally to make sure all kernels are covered in oil.
Listen for the popping to slow, about three minutes.
Remove from the heat.
Transfer the warm popcorn to a large bowl.
Sprinkle with seasoning. Mix to coat.
Serve warm or let the popcorn cool completely and store in sealed container for a couple days.

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