Nutritional yeast is full of protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It is delicious and a versatile food that works with nearly any type of diet or eating style. It is naturally low in sodium and calories, as well as fat-free, sugar-free, gluten-free and vegan. Studies have shown it has a wide range of potential health benefits, ranging from lowering cholesterol to protecting the body from free radical damage.
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.
- Baker’s yeast: Baker’s yeast is purchased alive and used to leaven bread. The yeast is killed during cooking but adds an earthy, yeasty flavor to bread.
- Brewer’s yeast: Brewer’s yeast can be purchased alive and is used to brew beer. The dead yeast cells leftover from the brewing process can be consumed as a nutritional supplement but have a very bitter taste.
- Nutritional yeast: This yeast is grown specifically to be used as a food product. The yeast cells are killed during manufacturing and not alive in the final product. It is used in cooking and has a cheesy, nutty or savory flavor.
To produce nutritional yeast, S. cerevisiae cells are grown for several days on a sugar-rich medium like molasses. The yeast is then deactivated with heat, harvested, washed, dried, crumbled and packaged for distribution. There are two types of nutritional yeast.
- 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.
Nutritional yeast is a great source of protein, B vitamins and trace minerals. Fortified nutritional yeast contains more B vitamins than unfortified varieties, as extra amounts are added during manufacturing the fortified variety if you are vegan as it contains added vitamin B12.
- It is a complete protein: Nutritional yeast contains all nine essential amino acids that humans must get from food. One tablespoon contains 2 grams of protein, making it an easy way for vegans to add high-quality protein to meals.
- It contains many B vitamins: One tablespoon of nutritional yeast contains 30–180% of the RDI for B vitamins. When fortified, it is especially rich in thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12.
- It contains trace minerals: One tablespoon contains 2–30% of the RDI for trace minerals, such as zinc, selenium, manganese and molybdenum. Trace minerals are involved in gene regulation, metabolism, growth and immunity.
Exact nutritional values vary between brands, so always read labels to find the variety that meets your needs.
Vitamin B12 is needed for a healthy nervous system, DNA production, energy metabolism and the creation of red blood cells. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products, so vegans must supplement their diet to avoid becoming deficient.
Consuming nutritional yeast can be an effective way to prevent vitamin B12 deficiency while on a vegan diet. One study including 49 vegans found that consuming 1 tablespoon of fortified nutritional yeast daily restored vitamin B12 levels in those who were deficient. In this study, the nutritional yeast contained 5 mcg of vitamin B12 per tablespoon, which is slightly more than double the daily recommended amount for adults.
Vegans should look for fortified varieties of nutritional yeast to ensure that adequate amounts of B12 are in the product.
Antioxidants in nutritional yeast help fight cell damage by binding to free radicals, ultimately disarming them. Nutritional yeast contains the antioxidants glutathione and selenomethionine. These particular antioxidants protect your cells from damage caused by both free radicals and heavy metals and help your body eliminate environmental toxins.
Nutritional yeast contains two main carbohydrates – alpha-mannan and beta-glucan. Studies show that adding alpha-mannan and beta-glucan to animal feed can reduce the frequency of infections from pathogenic bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella in pigs, as well as reduce tumor formation in mice.
Beta-glucan and alpha-mannan help protect against infection in several ways:
- They stop pathogenic bacteria from attaching to the lining of the intestines.
- They stimulate immune cells, making them more effective at fighting infection.
- They attach to certain types of toxins that yeast can produce in food crops and reduce their harmful effects.
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%. Another study found that mice fed beta-glucan from yeast had significantly lower cholesterol levels after only 10 days.
Those who have trouble metabolizing folic acid (synthetic vitamin B9) should read labels carefully and may want to choose unfortified nutritional yeast whenever possible.
How to Buy
You can find nutritional yeast in any co-op or grocery store. I like the brand KAL which makes a fortified unsweetened nutritional yeast. Fortified nutritional yeast is the most common type available for purchase. Nutritional yeast is sold as flakes, granules or powder and can be found in the spice section or bulk bins.
How to Store
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.
How to Cook
Add nutritional yeast to soups, stir fries, sprinkle on salads or avocado toast.
- Sprinkled over popcorn or pasta
- Stirred into soups for an umami flavor
- As a “cheese” flavoring in vegan sauces
- As a thickener for soups and sauces
- Added to pet food for extra nutrients
Serving sizes are determined by each manufacturer but typically 1 or 2 tablespoons.
It is safe to use nutritional yeast in moderation, typically up to several tablespoons per day.