In trying to live a healthier life via the foods we eat, we often start discovering new ingredients and foods we’d never heard about (at least most of us): chia seeds, quinoa, stevia, acacia, etc.
One that threw me came from my vegan friend (a heath coach in training) who told me to sprinkle some “nooch” on popcorn for a delicious snack. I was like, “what the heck is nooch?” It almost sounded like the street name of a drug! But no, it was just shorthand for nutritional yeast and it’s a savory ingredient many vegans use in place of cheese, among other things.
Why would I want to eat that? Is it even safe, healthy, beneficial or just another gimmicky, hyped fad? Here’s what I’ve learned about nutritional yeast and why you might want to add it to your pantry, especially if you are or are thinking about going vegan or vegetarian.
What is Nutritional Yeast?
Nutritional yeast is sometimes called a superfood because even a little of this high-protein, low-fat, nutrient-dense food provides a host of vitamins and minerals. It comes with a number of researched health benefits, from boosting your vitamin load to helping your immune system. Who knew a particular type of yeast could be all that?
Nutritional yeast is a species of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It is the same type of yeast that’s used to bake bread and brew beer. While brewer’s, baker’s and nutritional yeasts are technically made from the same species of yeast, they are very different products (1).
Nutritional yeast is grown specifically to be used as a food product, whereas the others are used to leaven bread or brew beer. Manufacturers grow nutritional yeast on a variety of sugar-rich sources, including molasses, whey, and sugar beets. The upside of this is the change of flavor to a cheesy, nutty or savory flavor that most people enjoy. The yeast cells are killed during manufacturing and not alive in the final product. The yeast is then harvested, washed, dried, crumbled and packaged for distribution.
Nutritional yeast is a popular food product often used in vegan cooking. It gets its name from the protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants it contains.
There are two types of nutritional yeast — unfortified and fortified.
- Unfortified: This type does not contain any added vitamins or minerals. It only contains the vitamins and minerals that are naturally produced by the yeast cells as they grow.
- Fortified: This type contains synthetic vitamins added during the manufacturing process to boost nutrient content. If vitamins have been added to the yeast, they will be included in the ingredients list.
Fortified nutritional yeast is the most common type available for purchase. Personally, I’m not a fan of fortification in general. These man-made vitamins, i.e. synthetic chemicals, are not only unnecessary but they can be harmful and toxic to our bodies. I prefer to get my vitamins and minerals from organic, whole food sources for best nutrition. Vegans, though, may benefit from a fortified version, which can provide nutrients that may be challenging to get from food sources alone, such as folate and vitamin B12. Others simply looking to bump up their protein or fiber intake while still getting a host of vitamins and minerals may prefer to opt for an unfortified type instead.
Yellow in color, nutritional yeast comes in flakes, granules or a powder-like form and is often used as a condiment due to its savory taste and health benefits. It can be found in the spice section or bulk bins of health food stores. It has a nutty, cheesy flavor and is often used to emulate cheese in vegan dishes, thicken sauces and dressings, and act as an additional boost in nutrients because it’s filled with an array of B vitamins, among other nutrients (3).
Nutrition Profile of Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast is an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and high-quality protein. Typically, two tablespoons of unfortified nutritional yeast contain:
As you can see, unfortified nutritional yeast is a powerhouse of B complex vitamins, protein, among others and includes 14% of your recommended daily fiber on top of that. Buying fortified nutritional yeast really isn’t necessary unless you’re a vegan wanting to get folate or B12. Read your labels. If it’s fortified, the synthetically produced vitamins will be listed under “ingredients” since they are added to the yeast rather than deriving naturally from it.
Researched Health Benefits of “Nooch”
Because of its health profile, nutritional yeast comes with a number of benefits:
Powerful Antioxidants. Every day your body is faced with potential cell damage caused by free radicals. Antioxidants from the diet help fight this damage by binding to free radicals, ultimately disarming them. Nutritional yeast contains the powerful antioxidants glutathione and selenomethionine (10, 11). These particular antioxidants protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals and heavy metals and help your body eliminate environmental toxins (12, 13).
Consuming antioxidant-rich foods, such as nutritional yeast, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can help boost antioxidant levels and defend against chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer and macular degeneration (14, 15).
Supporting the Immune System. Research has shown that S. cerevisiae, the strain of yeast in nutritional yeast, can support the immune system and reduce inflammation resulting from bacterial infection. Nutritional yeast provides the compounds beta-1,3 glucan, trehalose, mannan and glutathione, all of which are associated with enhanced immune function (1). It may also be helpful in treating diarrhea (2, 3).
In an article by Dr. Alan Christianson, N.D., published in Nutrition Science News, he reports that nutritional yeast provides a significant dose of minerals, such as iron. Nutritional yeast also contains selenium, which repairs cell damage, and benefit-rich zinc, which aids in tissue repair, wound healing, and maintains our sense of taste and smell (3).
Lowering Cholesterol. The beta-glucan found in nutritional yeast may also lower cholesterol. In one study, men with high cholesterol who consumed 15 grams of beta-glucan derived from yeast daily for eight weeks lowered their total cholesterol levels by 6% (18).
Promoting Skin, Hair, and Nail Health. Some research suggests that nutritional yeast can combat brittle nails and hair loss. It may also help reduce acne and improve other common skin problems, particularly in adolescence. Biotin, in particular, has been shown to support healthy hair, skin and nails. It also helps slow signs of skin aging, such as redness and skin spots. Niacin, also found in nutritional yeast, is also often used to treat chronic acne and improve overall skin health (1, 3).
Antiviral and Antibacterial Properties. Dr. Seymour Pomper, an expert in yeast, notes that nutritional yeast is the fourth most prescribed herbal monopreparation in Germany due to its antiviral and antibacterial properties. Interestingly enough, only ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and horse chestnut are consumed at higher levels.
Pomper explains that because nutritional yeast has not been associated with the Candida albicans strain related to yeast infections, it has proved to be one of the best remedies for chronic candida symptoms, a specific type of yeast infection. It has also shown profound effects on E.coli, salmonella and staphylococcus (3).
High in Protein. Nutritional yeast is a complete protein containing at least nine of the 18 amino acids that your body cannot produce. This is great news, especially for vegans and vegetarians who may struggle to find enough protein sources in the diet. As a protein food, nutritional yeast benefits the entire body. Protein deficiency can lead to:
- A sluggish metabolism
- Trouble losing weight
- Difficulty building muscle mass
- Low energy levels and fatigue
- Poor concentration and trouble learning
- Mood swings
- Muscle, bone and joint pain
- Blood sugar changes
- Slow wound healing
- Impaired immunity
When paired with a variety of other protein foods as part of a healthy, well-rounded diet, nutritional yeast can boost protein intake and ensure you get enough to meet your daily needs (3).
Improves Digestion, Including Lactose Intolerance. German monographs indicate nutritional yeast as a medicinal choice for diarrhea and loss of appetite, and studies showcase the digestive system benefits of nutritional yeast. The probiotics in nutritional yeast have shown positive effects on diarrheal patients, and although more research is needed, it may aid in the treatment of diarrhea.
In addition, nutritional yeast is helpful for those who suffer the symptoms of lactose intolerance since it does not contain any dairy products. One study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggests that Saccharomyces cerevisiae expresses significant sucrase and some isomaltase activity but no lactase activity, and it has been proposed to improve malabsorption in patients with sucrase-isomaltase deficiency who intentionally or unintentionally consume sucrose (3).
Supports Healthy Pregnancy. Nutritional yeast is loaded with B vitamins, including thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and, in fortified yeast, folate. Not only are these key vitamins crucial to cell metabolism, mood regulation, nerve function and more, but they’re also critical to ensuring a healthy pregnancy. Folate is especially important. It can help reduce the risk of birth defects and optimize fetal growth and development. Studies show that low levels of folate during pregnancy may actually be associated with preterm delivery, low birth weight, neural tube defects and growth retardation (1, 3).
Vitamin B12 – Fortified Nutritional Yeast. One of the top benefits of fortified nutritional yeast is its content of vitamin B12, an important water-soluble vitamin that is essential for DNA synthesis, red blood cell production and maintaining the health of the nervous system. Unfortunately, many vegans and vegetarians are at a higher risk for deficiency, as vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal products and select fortified foods. Studies show that supplementing with fortified nutritional yeast can be an effective way to restore vitamin B12 levels in those who are deficient (1, 3). Vegans concerned about their B12 levels should look for fortified varieties of nutritional yeast to ensure that adequate amounts of B12 are in the product.
Are There Any Risks?
Despite all the benefits that nutritional yeast may offer, this supplement is not suitable for everyone. Researchers have recommended that individuals with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), glaucoma, and hypertension avoid using nutritional yeast because it could make their symptoms worse. People with a yeast sensitivity or allergy should also take care to avoid any exposure to nutritional yeast. In addition, some researchers say that people with a higher risk of gout may want to avoid nutritional yeast.
How to Use Nooch
Many people really like the taste of this nutritious food. Nutritional yeast should be stored in a cool, dark place to preserve its vitamins. It should also be kept tightly sealed to keep moisture out. When properly stored, it can last up to two years. Serving sizes are determined by each manufacturer but typically 1 or 2 tablespoons.
Nutritional yeast is versatile. People can add it as a savory seasoning to a variety of dishes, including pasta, vegetables, and salads. Some ways to use nutritional yeast include:
- sprinkling it on popcorn instead of butter or salt
- mixing it into risotto instead of Parmesan cheese
- making a vegan alternative to a cheese sauce
- stirring it into creamy soups for added nutrients
- adding it to scrambled eggs or a tofu scramble
- mixing it into a nut roast or stuffing
- stirred into soups for an umami flavor
- as a thickener for soups and sauces
- added to pet food for extra nutrients
Nosh on Some Nooch
As you can see, nutritional yeast is called a superfood for a reason. Personally I’m a fan of the unfortified version which comes packed with vitamins, minerals and trace minerals but others may want to go with a fortified nooch for the B12 and folate. Nutritional yeast is easy to use. Just sprinkle it over or into other foods. Its wonderfully savory taste makes it a great cheese replacer.
Mostly I use nutritional yeast to complement a whole foods based diet since I’m a firm believer that we should derive our nutrition from real, naturally occurring foods as much as possible rather than from supplements or specially made foods like nutritional yeast. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian looking for alternatives to cheese and dairy, you’ll want to check it out. If nothing else, replace your popcorn salt with it. Definitely try it though and see if it’s something you’d like to add to your pantry. You won’t be disappointed!
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