Back when I was in high school, my brother went vegan and a bunch of weird ingredients started showing up in our house. As a huge meat lover I turned my nose up at most of this stuff, even made fun of it, but nutritional yeast immediately caught my taste buds. Decades later, my brother is back to eating meat and I have become vegetarian, but we both still like nutritional yeast. Now, new research shows that in addition to providing a healthy shot of protein and vitamins, nutritional yeast can actually make you less sick (or in a small number of cases more sick).
Want to know more? Read on!
What is Nutritional Yeast?
Nutritional yeast is basically dead baking yeast with some extra vitamins. Vegans love nutritional yeast because it is fortified with B12 vitamins that are normally only found from animal derived foods (B12 in nutritional yeast actually gets made by bacteria and then mixed with yeast to make it fortified). If you don’t care about B12, you can actually make your own non-fortified nutritional yeast by just toasting baking yeast. I recommend buying fortified nutritional yeast over cooking your own as the flakey texture is better and it doesn’t cost that much more.
As the name states, nutritional yeast is also packed with nutrition. The exact amounts depend on the maker but 1.5 tablespoons of Red Star nutritional yeast has 70 calories, 8g of protein, 1g of fat, and 6g of carbohydrates (4 of which are fiber) along with more than enough B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12 vitamins for a day and a bit of potassium and iron. That is a pretty awesome nutrition profile for a food, but beyond that it may also help keep you from getting sick.
How Nutritional Yeast Can Prevent Sickness
I have been eating nutritional yeast for years because it tastes good and is full of protein. Recently I learned that it has even more positive benefits. A new study found that, over the course of 12 weeks, 85% of children given a placebo got sick, while only 40% of children given a small amount of nutritional yeast (either 1/8th teaspoon or 1/16th teaspoon daily) got sick. That is a huge result! The study had a relatively small sample size (only 156 kids) and should be repeated on additional populations, but the results are very encouraging. The nutritional yeast I’ve been using to season my son’s food is likely helping him avoid sick days too. If you want a more thorough synthesis of this and other studies, watch this video.
If you don’t have kids, don’t worry, nutritional yeast has also been shown to reduce sickness in adults. In this case the study was done on extreme athletes and it used a glucan tablet instead of actual yeast (yeast has a ton of glucan), but the results still showed a 50% reduction in symptoms. I would spend $7 on a container of nutritional yeast before I’d drop nearly $50 for a bottle of Wellmune pills though.
The Dark Side of Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast isn’t all butterflies and rainbows; it has a dark side, too.
First off, some nutritional yeasts can have elevated levels of lead. This leads to some bottles having a Prop 65 warning. Fortunately, there are many manufacturers who produce yeast with lead levels so low they can’t even be detected. Here’s an independent test that found Bragg, Bob’s Red Mill, and Red Star (three of the biggest brands) all had indetectable levels of lead. On the flip side, Frontier Coop, KAL, and Whole Foods brands all had detectable lead, but you’d need to be eating over 6 tablespoons a day of each to exceed your max allowable dose level and even a yeast lover like myself doesn’t eat that much of the stuff.
The other problem with nutritional yeast is that it can actually exacerbate a few diseases in some people. Studies have found evidence that consuming yeast can make certain diseases, like Crohn’s and hidradentis suppurative, worse. This isn’t just nutritional yeast, though; it is all yeasts: yeast in bread, in beer, in wine, etc. While learning about this, I started to wonder if part of the whole anti-gluten movement is coming from people who are actually sensitive to yeast and end up incidentally cutting it out as part of cutting out gluten.1 In the end, only a small fraction of the population is sensitive to yeast. If you come down with one of these serious diseases, you should try completely cutting yeast from your diet and seeing if there are some positive effects (you should probably also try cutting dairy as well, but that’s a topic for another post).
How to Eat It
Okay, now on to the fun part. I’ve been going on an on about how healthy nutritional yeast is, but have spent far too little time discussing how incredibly tasty it can be.
The simplest way to eat nutritional yeast is to just sprinkle it on any food you might sprinkle cheese powder on (e.g. soups, pasta, casseroles). My personal favorite is to sprinkle nutritional yeast on popcorn along with some garlic powder and salt and a little olive oil to help it all stick. This is so dang simple and so good for you (popcorn is a whole grain stuffed with antioxidants) that you could eat it every day. If you really want to be a health nut, you can cut out the olive oil and salt. Even with just a little salt and oil I think this has better flavor than popcorn covered in traditional butter and salt. I would pick this snack even if it weren’t so healthy.
Another great way to use nutritional yeast is in faux cheese sauces. My wife and I have made this cashew queso a number of times and actually like it better than real queso. The umami that it has is just amazing, and unlike regular queso it is actually good for you (I’d still be eating it even if it weren’t, though). Another option is sunflower mac. I won’t sit here and lie to you by saying that this tastes better than regular mac and cheese. It has its own sort of flavor that is good but not ridiculously decadent. Even better, the nutritional content of sunflower mac completely trounces that of regular mac and cheese. You could eat it every day for a decade and end up healthier than you were when you started. The same cannot be said of regular mac and cheese.
If you’re looking for a high protein meal with a lot of nutrition, you can try seitan. Seitan is a high protein meat replacer, and in my opinion it has better texture and flavor than tofu or tempeh (it also has no soy if you’re an anti-soy person). It is made from mixing wheat gluten with nutritional yeast and other flavorings. Here’s a great recipe for seitan (protip: reuse the simmering broth for something else later). Once you’ve made seitan you can cube it for stir-fries, throw it on the grill with BBQ sauce, slice it thin for sandwiches, etc. You can also buy premade seitan in the store, but it is pricey and you don’t get to customize the flavor. You can make 4-5 lbs of seitan (which has more protein than 10 lbs of chicken) for around $20 with a $15 4 lb bag of vital wheat gluten and a $7 4.5 oz jar of Bragg nutritional yeast. The seitan won’t even require the entire jar of yeast so you’ll have plenty left for popcorn and cashew cream sauces. Heck, you could even throw a few seitan chunks in with your sunflower mac to make it even better.
Nutritional Yeast: The Real Superfood
I think the term “superfood” gets thrown around far too often these days. If there is one food that truly deserves the title, it is nutritional yeast. It packs a ton of protein, fiber and vitamins into a tiny package. It keeps you from getting sick. It tastes amazingly good. What else could you ask for in a food?
Nutritional yeast is just plain awesome. Now get out there and start eating some!