My first experience with nutritional yeast was at a conference I attended recently. The conference organizers arranged for the hotel chef to make vegan meals for attendees. I noticed that every meal included mysterious yellow flakes, which I later learned was nutritional yeast.
As a certified nutritionist, I felt compelled to educate myself on this unfamiliar food upon returning home. Turns out, nutritional yeast (which is often called “nooch”) is an inactive yeast; a form of fungus grown on sugar cane and beet molasses, then dried and sold in flake or powdered form.
You’ll find nutritional yeast in the grocery store marketed as a cheese substitute with a Parmesan-like flavor. Nutritional yeast is a vitamin B powerhouse and particularly rich in vitamin B12, a nutrient which many of us become deficient in as we get older.
The Health Benefits of Nutritional Yeast
1. Nutritional yeast is an excellent source of vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps our bodies make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. It’s estimated that 20% of older adults are deficient in this important nutrient. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll need to eat a complete protein like nutritional yeast since B12 is found mainly in animal products.
Adults should aim for a 2.4 microgram daily intake of vitamin B12, which is the equivalent of about 1.5 tablespoons of nutritional yeast flakes.
As older adults we also need to monitor our B12 levels because our stomachs produce less hydrochloric stomach acid as we age. This acid breaks down our food and helps digestion. Unfortunately, even if you eat a healthy balanced diet, you may not be absorbing enough B12 from food. A vitamin B12 deficiency can cause tiredness, weakness, constipation, loss of appetite and megaloblastic anemia. Nerve problems such as numbness and tingling in the hands and feet can also occur. If you suspect you might have a vitamin B12 deficiency don’t head for the vitamin aisle. Instead, head to the doctor. It’s important to treat a vitamin B12 deficiency as soon as possible.
Most manufacturers add a range of B vitamins to their nutritional yeast products. But scrutinize the label to make sure. Bragg’s Nutritional Yeast, which is widely available, will satisfy 80% of your B12 needs in just two tablespoons. Red Star is another good brand.
2. Nutritional yeast is a source of fiber.
Nutritional yeast packs 4 grams of fiber into a 2 tablespoon serving. (It’s suggested that a healthy diet includes 25-38 grams of fibre a day.) Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that helps regulate appetite, digestion, blood sugar, and cholesterol.
3. Nutritional yeast contains important minerals.
Nutritional yeast is a source of minerals like iron and magnesium which are important for good health. It’s recommended that older adults get at least 8 milligrams of iron a day. Iron deficiency is the second most common cause of anemia in older adults. An iron deficiency independent of anemia can also lead to fatigue and a predisposition to certain infections.
How to Use Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast can be used in any dish where you would normally add a bit of cheese, including soups, salads, pastas and pizza. It’s also great sprinkled over popcorn.
Lifestyle guru Camille Styles makes a dairy-free macaroni and cheese sauce using raw cashews and nutritional yeast. Food blogger Susan Pridmore of the Wimpy Vegetarian flavors her brussel sprout chips with nutritional yeast for a healthy vegan snack; and nutritional yeast flakes are a key ingredient of Whitewater Cooks’ versatile glory bowl dressing.
Nutritional yeast flakes are readily available in bulk and jar form in natural food and health food stores around the country. More and more supermarkets are starting to stock it in their natural food departments too — so be sure to ask staff its whereabouts.