Is Nutritional Yeast the Next Big Thing in Health Food?

STACK breaks down the health benefits of nutritional yeast and explodes the myth that it's dull and boring.

Nutritional yeast.

The name doesn't exactly elicit a positive response. Other superfoods have cool names like goji berries or acai juice, which sound exotic and sexy. Nutritional yeast sounds like something the government would hand out in rations to the survivors of an earthquake. But despite its dull name, nutritional yeast has all the ingredients of a food that could explode in popularity.

What Is Nutritional Yeast?

Nutritional Yeast

Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast. It is produced by culturing yeast in a nutrient medium whose primary ingredient is glucose. When the yeast is ready, it is heated to deactivate it before it's harvested, washed, dried and packaged. The most popular strain of yeast used to make nutritional yeast is saccharomyces cerevisiae.

Nutrition Profile

Nutritional Yeast

Now let's get to the nutrition facts. A two-tablespoon serving of nutritional yeast packs 6 grams of protein, 8 percent of your daily fiber, no sodium, no fat and just 40 calories. The protein in nutritional yeast is what's known as "complete protein," meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. So it is more like animal protein than plant-based protein, which is a good thing for anyone looking to build and repair muscle. Since animal protein is similar to our own body's protein, we're able to use it more rapidly and effectively than plant-based protein.

Nutritional yeast is also a great source of B vitamins. All nutritional yeast contains some B vitamins, but most varieties are fortified with additional amounts. Fortified nutritional yeast contains 40 percent of your daily B12, 70 percent of your B3, 140 percent of B6, 160 percent of B2 and 180 percent of B1.

B1, also known as thiamine, breaks down carbohydrates for energy and assists proper nerve function. B2, also known as riboflavin, and B3, also known as niacin, assist with carbohydrate, amino acid (protein) and fat metabolism. B6 aids in red blood cell production and amino acid and carbohydrate metabolism. B12 regulates the functions of cells in the G.I. tract, bone marrow and nerve tissue.

Nutritional yeast is totally vegan-friendly and 100-percent gluten-free, making it a food anyone can eat. It is a popular ingredient in vegan cooking, which is why it's often fortified with additional B vitamins. Vegans have a tough time getting sufficient B vitamins through their plant-based diets, and consuming nutritional yeast is a convenient way to do so.


Nutritional Yeast

With all these benefits, nutritional yeast must taste pretty awful, right? That's how it works—the stuff that's good for you always tastes bad, and the stuff that's bad for you always tastes good.

Shockingly, that's nowhere near the case with nutritional yeast. It has a savory, umami-like flavor that's incredibly versatile and can be used to enhance the enjoyment of almost any food.

Now would be a good time to mention that nutritional yeast is not used in cooking like baker's yeast. Baker's yeast is a leavening agent, which means it's added to doughs and batters to help them rise. Foaming action helps the dough or batter become light, fluffy and soft. Nutritional yeast cannot be used as a leavening agent. Instead, it's used as a seasoning.

Nutritional yeast comes in the form of yellowish-tan flakes or powder and is typically packaged in a shaker bottle. As previously mentioned, its savory flavor makes it popular in vegan cooking, and it can be used to replicate the taste of cheese. The number of recipes or foods to which nutritional yeast can be added is unlimited, including pastas, salads, sauces, pizzas, chips, mac & cheese, potatoes, dips and vegetables.

I have been an ardent meat and cheese eater my entire life, and I had never tried nutritional yeast until a few days ago. I sprinkled some on popcorn and was amazed at the taste. It has an enjoyable, light cheesy flavor! The more you put on, the more flavor you get (and protein and fiber). It's certainly not overpowering, and I would say it's less salty than real cheese; but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't enjoy the flavor. I'm excited to try it out in different recipes and see what else it tastes good on.

The one negative about nutritional yeast is that it's a bit pricey. I picked up a 25-serving bottle for $7.99 at my local grocery chain, which is a bit more than I expected. However, I don't mind spending a few extra bucks on something that's versatile, healthy and delicious.

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