Vegans love the cheesy, umami flavor and there are some serious health reasons to choose nutritional yeast. Try it on popcorn or pasta plus get more recipe ideas and learn why we love it.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
November 13, 2019

Nutritional yeast could be one of the tastiest and healthiest ingredients missing from your pantry. Though it is a great food for vegans and vegetarians, all people can gain health benefits from adding it to their diet. We have the what, why and how on nutritional yeast. Read on to see why you should get your hands on this delicious golden dust.

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What Is Nutritional Yeast?

This cheesy-tasting powder is made up of a type of yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It can be grown on many types of sugary substances, including molasses and sugar beets. Once the yeast is harvested, it is heated to deactivate it so it doesn't froth up like active yeast. This dried fungus is then made into a powder, which can be fine or flaky, and—voilà—nutritional yeast is ready to be enjoyed.

You'll also hear nutritional yeast called "brewer's yeast" and, indeed, it's the same species of yeast. The type used for brewing beer usually is grown on barley. When brewer's yeast is sold as a nutritional supplement, it's been dried and deactivated too. But, if you're avoiding gluten, stick to nutritional yeast, which hasn't come into contact with barley. Both yeasts make a great flavoring agent and nutritional supplement for vegans and vegetarians, as one of the few animal-free sources of vitamin B12. Here is the nutritional information for 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast:

  • 90 calories
  • 1g fat
  • 10g carbohydrate
  • 8g fiber
  • 2g sugars
  • 16g protein
  • 15.6mcg (260% DV)
  • 19.2mg (960% DV)
  • 480mg folate (120% DV)

Helps Prevent Anemia in Vegans

Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that is essential for our bodies to make red blood cells, synthesize DNA and support healthy neurological function. This vitamin, also referred to as cobalamin, is found mostly in animal-based foods, such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs. For this reason, longtime vegans can be at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, which can cause anemia, fatigue and, in severe cases, neurological problems.

Luckily, unfortified nutritional yeast is a plant-based source of vitamin B12, with 260% of your daily needs in just 1/4 cup. It offers a way for vegans and vegetarians to meet their nutritional needs without animal products. Many products are also fortified with B vitamins and their concentration of vitamin B12 can vary from brand to brand. For instance, Bob's Red Mill sells nutritional yeast that has up to 730% DV vitamin B12 per 1/4 cup, almost three times as much as generic brands. Sprinkling this delicious nutty powder on snacks like popcorn throughout the week provides a sufficient amount of vitamin B12 for most people.

If you are a vegan, you may want to talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about a blood test for vitamin B12 and possibly taking a supplement.

High in Antioxidants

Nutritional yeast is not just for vegans or vegetarians; it boasts a slew of benefits for omnivores as well. One study in Food & Function found that nutritional yeast significantly increased antioxidants and fiber when added to foods, especially if the foods were not cooked. Other studies have found that the specific antioxidants in nutritional yeast have moderate antimicrobial and antibacterial properties.

Helps Manage Diabetes

For those who are trying to control their blood sugar, nutritional yeast may be a helpful addition to your diet. A clinical trial published in the Internation Journal of Preventive Medicine looked into how nutritional yeast can impact the blood sugar of people who have diabetes. After supplementing with 1.8g (about 1.5 teaspoons) of nutritional yeast a day for 12 weeks, they found impressive reductions in long-term blood glucose (also called A1C) and improvements in insulin sensitivity.

Helps Alleviate IBS

Nutritional yeast may help alleviate irritable bowel syndrome, which is one of the most common gut disorders in the U.S. A 2015 study found that nutritional yeast consumption significantly reduced abdominal pain and discomfort in people with IBS. The daily capsule of a strain of S. cerevisiae was also well-tolerated, and didn't mess with people's regularity. A meta-analysis in the World Journal of Gastroenterology found a clinically significant decrease in abdominal pain, discomfort and bloating for those regularly consuming the yeast (500 mg/day for eight weeks). They also found that stool consistency improved. Though it may not be a cure-all for every IBS symptom, the research is promising and may be another reason to add nutritional yeast to your eating pattern. Learn more about what to eat (and avoid) if you have IBS.

How to Use Nutritional Yeast

For people who follow a vegan or dairy-free diet, it can be hard to find something to replace that cheesy taste we all love, but nutritional yeast gets pretty darn close. It's very savory and delivers that umami flavor to plant-based dishes. Most grocery stores have packages of nutritional yeast and some even have it in bulk bins. However, if you can't find it in stores near you, it can be easily found online.

You'll find plenty of recipes featuring nutritional yeast, but you can also simply add it to dishes you already cook. Here are a few examples of easy ways to work nutritional yeast into your diet:

  • Stir into pasta in place of Parmesan cheese
  • Sprinkle on freshly popped popcorn
  • Season sautéed greens or baked kale chips
  • Add to mashed potatoes or cauliflower
  • Combine with raw nuts and herbs to make a crust for chicken or fish, and bake
  • Stir into soups and stews to deepen flavor

Check out these nutritional yeast recipes for more inspiration:

Bottom Line

Nutritional yeast can be a staple part of vegan and vegetarian diets, but that doesn't mean it's off-limits for omnivores. From boosting antioxidants in your diet to calming your bowels, nutritional yeast is a healthy swap for traditional cheese flavor.

Related: What Exactly Is Vegan Cheese?

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