Every now and again, a health food comes into vogue and sticks around for a good reason: it lives up to its nutritional marketing claims.
Nutritional yeast, also known as ‘nooch’ or ‘hippy dust’, is the ancient health food from Egyptian times that’s now so mainstream it’s sold at local supermarkets.
First pitched in the modern era to vegans for its plant-based protein and vitamin B12 content, nutritional yeast has received dietetic and culinary ticks of approval for everyone to try.
“Nutritional yeast is one of those ‘new/old’ products that have come into vogue again,” Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians Australia, Joel Feren, tells SBS.
“Far too often, we dismiss these types of ‘new age’ health foods. People may say the food industry has concocted a product's nutritional claims, falsely marketing it as ‘healthy’. But nutritional yeast is [the real deal]. It definitely gets a lot of ticks from my end. We should all be embracing this food – especially people following vegan and vegetarian diets.”
“...someone can add vitamin B12 to their dish just by adding tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast. That’s a wonderful option to have from a nutritional perspective.”
What is nutritional yeast?
So what exactly is nutritional yeast and why should vegans and carnivores alike consider it?
Nutritional yeast is produced on a sugar-based medium – typically beetroot molasses – before it’s heat-dried and subsequently deactivated (which is why the product can’t be used to make bread or brew beer). It’s then flaked or powdered.
The flakes and powder carry a yellow hue and a cheesy, nutty, umami flavour. It’s usually sprinkled over dishes – in the same way you’d lightly shower a meal with Parmesan cheese – or it can be used as a seasoning of sorts.
Although the yeast offers a lovely yellow flare to any dish, this pretty product isn’t just a garnish. As the name suggests – and Feren agrees – nutritional yeast is packed with lots of good stuff.
What's so nutritious about this yeast?
It’s important to note that there are two types of nutritional yeast: fortified and unfortified.
Fortified nutritional yeast products are boosted with nutrients, like folate, during the fermentation process. Unfortified nutritional yeast only contains the nutrients produced by the yeast cells as they grow and doesn’t have added vitamins or minerals like the fortified variety.
Fortified nutritional yeast contains chromium, selenium, zinc, iron, magnesium, copper and manganese, as well as a range of antioxidants.
"It even has even a certain type of dietary fibre called beta-glucan in it," Feren says. "Beta-glucan is generally associated with oats, but it's also found in shitake mushrooms and seaweed. It’s a soluble fibre that’s been shown to reduce cholesterol.”
Most fortified brands are also rich in vitamin B12, which is essential for red blood cell development and brain function.
“We know that people following a vegan diet may have to supplement their diet with vitamin B12 because vitamin B12 is generally found in animal-based foods like eggs, dairy and meat.
“But someone can add vitamin B12 to their dish just by adding a tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast. That’s a wonderful option to have from a nutritional perspective.”
“Including a food like nutritional yeast into your diet is such an easy thing you can do to reap a whole lot of nutritional benefits.”
Feren also confirms that nutritional yeast is a good source of complete protein. However, he says, you shouldn’t rely on nutritional yeast alone for dietary protein.
“There’s about two to three grams of protein per tablespoon of nutritional yeast. But certainly, if you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet, it might just give you that little bit of a top-up that your body requires, in addition to sourcing protein from a variety of different foods.”
Nutritional yeast is also low in fat, dairy-free and contains no soy or sugar.
But there is one health caveat to recognise - if nutritional yeast is consumed in excessively large doses, it may cause digestive discomfort. “If you over-consume anything it may be detrimental to your health. Taking one to two tablespoons of nutritional yeast as recommended is perfectly acceptable.”
How to cook with nutritional yeast
A simple way to use nutritional yeast is as a cheese substitute in recipes, given it is dairy-free.
The Source Bulk Foods recommends using flakes instead of the cheese in basil or coriander pesto. The online store also suggests combining the yeast with the Middle Eastern condiment, tahini, to make a dip or a base for sauces and dressings.
“For yummy pasta sauce, gently simmer coconut milk till slightly reduced before adding crushed nuts and veggies of choice,” The Source online states. “Stir in two to three tablespoons of toasted yeast before serving.”
You can sprinkle nutritional yeast over pasta, salads and baked vegetables. But given it boasts an umami flavour, it makes for a great taste enhancer in soups and stews.
Another tip is to add nutritional yeast to a fresh batch of popped popcorn for a cheesy snack that’s also really good for you.
“It’s actually really easy to eat well these days because we've got foods like nutritional yeast available,” says Feren. “Including a food like nutritional yeast into your diet is such an easy thing you can do to reap a whole lot of nutritional benefits.”
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