Getting to Know Nutritional Yeast

Do you ever just stop and wonder about any of the foods that live in your refrigerator?  I don’t mean the perishables that come and go every week or so, but the condiments that find their way to the back corner, only to be resurrected when a recipe calls for a half-teaspoon or so.

In my house, Nutritional Yeast was such a food. No more. After those long weeks of eating virtually every meal at home, I was able to spend more quality time with this gem, and now I’m glad for the experience.

I first heard of Nutritional Yeast several years ago, when I was overhauling my diet, and it came well recommended to me as a good substitute for cheese in sauces, flavoring on popcorn,  thickening in sauces, and a good nutritional additive to pet food.

Long story short – we know each other better now after I took some time to “research” nutritional yeast.  Let me tell you why it would be a good staple in your house, too.

What is Nutritional Yeast ?

Yeast has played an important role in the human diet for thousands of years. It is a species of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevsiae, the same type of yeast that is used to bake bread and brew beer, but there are differences among them.

  • Baker’s yeast is purchased alive and used to leaven bread. The yeast is killed during cooking, but adds an earthy, yeasty flavor to the bread.
  • Brewer’s yeast can be purchased alive and is used to brew beer. The dead yeast cells leftover from the brewing process can be consumed as a nutritional supplement, but have a very bitter taste.
  • Nutritional yeast is grown specifically to be used as a food product. The cells are grown for several days on a sugar-rich medium like molasses. To produce nutritional yeast, the cells are grown for several days on a sugar rich medium like molasses. The yeast is then deactivated with heat, harvested, washed, dried, crumbled, and packaged for distribution.

There are two types of nutritional yeast: unfortified, which does not contain any added vitamins or minerals, and fortified, which contains synthetic vitamins added during the manufacturing process to boost nutrient content. If vitamins have been added, they will be included on the ingredients list.

Nutritional yeast is a versatile food that works with nearly any type of diet or eating style. It is naturally low in sodium and calories, as well as fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, and vegan.

Why Should I Eat Nutritional Yeast?

It is a very nutritious food and is called a superfood. It is a great source of protein, B vitamins and trace minerals. The fortified variety contains more B vitamins than the unfortified ones, as extra amounts are added during manufacturing. The unfortified ones still contain a moderate amount of B vitamins, which form naturally as the yeast grows. (For the record, the latter is my preference, because more processing, in general, tends to weaken food strength overall. You suit yourself on this one.)

About those nutritional gifts:

  • Complete Protein – Nutritional yeast contains all nine essential amino acids that humans must get from food. One tablespoon contains 2 grams of protein, making it an easy way for vegans, in particular, to add high-quality protein to meals.
  • Many B Vitamins – One tablespoon of nutritional yeast contains 30-80% of the RDI for B vitamins. The fortified varieties are especially rich in thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and B12.
  • Multiple Trace Minerals – One tablespoon contains 2-30% of the RDI for trace minerals, such as zinc, selenium, manganese, and molybdenum, all of which are involved in healthy gene regulation, metabolism, growth, and immunity.

What Benefits Can I Expect?

As scientists continue to learn more and more good things to be had by consuming raw, or minimally processed foods, there are many benefits afforded by nutritional yeast. Here are a few.

  1. Immune system strengthening – There are two main carbohydrates that are valuable here – alpha mannan and beta-glucan. They are helpful in two ways:
  • They stop pathogenic bacteria from attaching to the lining of the intestine.
  • They stimulate immune cells, making them more effective at fighting infection.
  • They attach to certain types of toxins that yeast can produce in food crops and reduce their harmful effects.
  1. Energy boosting – Vitamin B12 is the prime mover in this regard, and also helps with a healthy nervous system, DNA production, and the creation of red blood cells. Because Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal products, vegans can maintain proper levels of it with nutritional yeast. One study, for example, including 49 vegans, found that consuming 1 tablespoon of fortified nutritional yeast restored vitamin B12 levels in those who were deficient. About ¼ cup a day yields the needed 2.4 mcg seven-fold.
  1. Cholesterol lowering and glucose sensitivity improving – More conclusive studies are needed in these areas, but early evidence has shown good possibilities. Stay tuned.
  1. Taste enhancing – Nutritional yeast is a versatile seasoning to keep right next to the salt and pepper. and can be added to a variety of healthful dishes. It comes either in the form of flakes or powder, and has a savory, nutty, cheesy flavor. Here are some ideas to start with:
  • Sprinkle it on salads, vegetables, and popcorn, (instead of butter or salt!), for a cheesy flavor.
  • Mix it into risotto instead of Parmesan cheese.
  • Make a vegan cheese sauce. (Click here for a recipe).
  • Stir it into creamy soups, scrambled eggs, or tofu for added nutrients.
  • Add to pet food for added nutrients.

Is There a Downside Here?

Researchers have recommended that people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), glaucoma, and hypertension avoid nutritional yeast because it might make their symptoms worse.  Individuals with a yeast sensitivity or allergy should stay away from it. Also, some researchers say that people with a higher risk of gout may want to avoid nutritional yeast.

Where Can I Find Nutritional Yeast and How Do I Store It?

It is available in the bulk foods or supplement section of any natural foods store, or health co-op. Many grocery stores, especially larger ones, also stock it. Bragg and Bob’s Red Mill are two widely distributed brands and they are easily found on lines as well.

Transfer yeast from a bulk bin into a completely dry glass container with a good lid when you get it home. If you purchase it packaged already, it can store it that way in a cool, dark location where it will keep for a couple of ears.  Keeping it in the refrigerator or freezer will extend the shelf even more.

The Bottom Line

Nutrient density, in my opinion, is worth keeping a close eye on in a good health endeavor, and is hard to come by in even the classiest of processed foods, which make up better than 85% of the grocery store items. Nutritional yeast has a BIG nutrition profile and is one of those little ways to just make life better, more interesting, and tastier. Try it! You’ll be good friends with it in no time!

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