A couple of weeks ago I shared my first cooking video and a couple of friends / followers asked about nutritional yeast:
It’s used in a few recipes in my 30-Minute Heart Healthy cookbook*, so I thought others might enjoy getting the lowdown on this mystery ingredient…
What is nutritional yeast?
Nutritional yeast, sometimes called “nooch” by fans and Saccharomyces cerevisiae by scientists, is deactivated yeast sold as flakes or powder and used as a condiment. It’s treasured particularly by vegans as kind of a cheese substitute thanks to it’s savory, nutty, umami flavour. You won’t mistake it for actual cheese, but it can impart a similar essence to certain dishes.
It should be easy to find in the natural foods section of a well-stocked grocery store or a natural foods store. If you don’t have one nearby, Amazon stocks a number of brands.
How do you use it?
Some people like to sprinkle it on popcorn. Butter first, mind you, so it doesn’t all fall to the bottom of the bowl. (Or Better Butter or a spritz of vegetable oil if you prefer.)
Personally I think it’s best in dressings and sauces, such as a lemon-tahini dressing or a “cheesy” (but cheese-free) cashew sauce. The flavour works well with scrambled tofu, mashed potatoes, or other vegetables.
Why not just use cheese?
Clearly if you’re following a completely plant-based diet for ethical or health reasons, you’re not going to go with cheese. But what about us omnivorous types?
If you’ve got some nutritional yeast in the pantry, try it sprinkled on other things you might otherwise add cheese to. Variety can help you cover more bases nutritionally, and compared to cheese, it does has some advantages.
Nutritional benefits of nutritional yeast
As condiments go, nutritional yeast is relatively nutritious. It won’t replace a varied, balanced diet, but it doesn’t hurt. Brands vary, but here’s a comparison of a popular brand to a popular cheese:
Bob’s Red Mill, 1 tbsp (4g)
|Parmesan cheese, 1 tbsp (8g)|
|Calcium (mg)||1.5 (0%)||67 (7%)|
|Iron (mg)||0.25 (1%)||0 (0%)|
|Potassium (mg)||66 (1%)||14 (0%)|
|Sodium (mg)||6 (0%)||133 (6%)|
|Thiamin / B-1 (mg)||3 (245%)*||0.002 (0%)|
|Riboflavin / B-2 (mg)||2.4 (186%)*||0.026 (2%)|
|Niacin / B-3 (mg)||11.5 (73%)*||0.006 (0%)|
|Vitamin B-6 (mg)||1.8 (86%)*||0.006 (0%)|
|Vitamin B-12 (µg)||4.4 (183%)*||0.103 (2%)|
|Saturated fat (g)||0||1 (6%)|
|Cholesterol (mg)||0||7 (2%)|
|* Fortified. These nutrients have been added to the product.|
I debated the serving sizes to use in this table, because the serving size on the Bob’s Red Mill product is 1/4 cup, but I’ve yet to see a recipe using that gives you that much per serving.
In the amounts people typically eat, more like the one tablespoon I’ve shown here, the nutrition you’ll get from nutritional yeast isn’t that significant, except for a couple of considerations…
Not specific to cardiac health, but if you skimmed the table you must have noticed that the B vitamins are very high in the nutritional yeast. That’s because they’ve been added (aka fortified). They’re not added to all nutritional yeast products, so if that matters to you, check the label. (I just checked the one in our kitchen, sold at Superstore, and it’s not fortified.)
If you eat a varied, nutritious diet, don’t worry… you’ll likely get your B vitamins from other foods. But the B-12 particularly can be important. B-12 deficiency can be serious and in severe cases cause irreversible nerve damage. This potentially matters to two groups:
- Vegans. B-12 is only found in animal foods and over time without them our B-12 stores can be depleted, so vegans should look for B-12 fortified foods or take a supplement.
- People over age 50 don’t absorb B-12 as well, and it turns out we absorb B-12 from supplements and fortified foods best.
Honestly though, in both cases, if you’re really concerned about B-12 I’d recommend talking to your doctor or dietitian about a daily supplement. Don’t rely on nutritional yeast unless you’re consistent about having it every day.
For blood pressure watchers: The sodium is quite a bit lower compared to parmesan cheese. (And in reality, let’s be honest, sometimes we end up with more cheese than just a tablespoon.) So if you like the taste of this on something compared to cheese and you’re watching sodium, that’s a win.
Or sprinkle a little of each. You get more umami-ness without quite as much sodium as if you’d gone whole hog with the parmesan. (I do this too sometimes, so no judging here.)
Same comments as with sodium. Although honestly, I wouldn’t worry about a little saturated fat from a little cheese. We have bigger concerns.
Potassium can help keep blood pressure in check, and nutritional yeast has a little more than cheese, but honestly, we’re talking about a lot more than 66mg to make a difference. (The daily recommended amount is 4700mg.) It all adds up I suppose, but there are better sources.
Unless you’re sprinkling the stuff on everything you eat, the other nutrition in nutritional yeast isn’t that earth-shattering. But if it can boost the savoury yumminess of your food and that means you use less salt, I’ll call it a win. You get a (very) little bit of fibre, protein, potassium, and other good stuff as a bonus.
Is nutritional yeast acid- or alkaline-forming in the body?
This interesting question stems from the Alkaline Diet, which proposes that foods, when metabolized, either lower (acid) or raise (alkaline) the body’s pH, impacting our health in the process. But this theory has been convincingly debunked (see here, here, and here.)
Our body keeps the blood pH tightly controlled between 7.35 – 7.45. Certain foods might make your urine acidic or alkaline, but that’s just a sign that your kidney is doing it’s job of keeping the body in balance. There is no convincing evidence that this approach can prevent or cure chronic disease or cancer or deliver any other health benefit.
So while nutritional yeast is generally considered alkaline-forming, I wouldn’t make that your reason to choose it.
Instead, as I always say, factor in your preferences and use it if you like it! If you eat a strictly vegan diet or use a lot of cheese to season your foods, (hi cheese-lover me too!) this might be an especially handy tool in your culinary toolbox.
Do you use it? What for? Share your thoughts on Facebook.
* that’s an affiliate link for the cookbook, which means that if you buy through it, Amazon shares a small commission with me, at no additional cost to you.