Nutritional yeast is a popular food product often used in vegan cooking.
It gets its name from the protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants it contains.
Studies have shown it has a wide range of potential health benefits, ranging from lowering cholesterol to protecting the body from free radical damage.
This article explains what nutritional yeast is, reviews its health benefits, and suggests creative ways to use it.
What is nutritional yeast?
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 the bread.
- Brewer’s yeast: Brewer’s yeast can be purchased alive and is used to brew beer. The dead yeast cells left over 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 and fortified.
- 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 the nutrient content. If vitamins have been added to the yeast, they will be included in the ingredients list.
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 of health food stores.
Nutritional yeast is 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.
Summary: Nutritional yeast is a vegan food product with a cheesy, nutty, or savory flavor. It comes in both fortified and unfortified varieties and can be found in most health food stores.
It is very nutritious
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.
However, unfortified varieties still contain a moderate amount of B vitamins, which form naturally as the yeast grows.
Some of the main nutritional benefits of nutritional yeast include:
- 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 recommended daily intake 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 recommended daily intake 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.
Suggested read: 13 nearly complete protein sources for vegetarians and vegans
If you are using nutritional yeast to add extra vitamins and minerals to your diet, look for fortified varieties with higher amounts of added nutrients.
If you are using nutritional yeast simply for its flavor, you may be less concerned about whether it is fortified or not.
Summary: Fortified nutritional yeast is a vegan-friendly source of complete protein, B vitamins, and trace minerals required for optimal health.
Nutritional yeast can prevent a vitamin B12 deficiency
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.
Summary: Fortified nutritional yeast contains high amounts of vitamin B12 and can be used to help prevent deficiency in vegans.
Nutritional yeast contains powerful antioxidants
Every day your body is faced with potential cell damage caused by free radicals.
Antioxidants from the diet help fight this damage by binding to free radicals, ultimately disarming them.
Nutritional yeast contains the powerful antioxidants glutathione and selenomethionine.
These particular antioxidants protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals and heavy metals and help your body eliminate environmental toxins.
Suggested read: The 18 best protein sources for vegans and vegetarians
Consuming antioxidant-rich foods, such as nutritional yeast, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, can help boost antioxidant levels and defend against chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and macular degeneration.
Summary: Nutritional yeast contains the antioxidants glutathione and selenomethionine, both of which can help protect your body from chronic diseases caused by oxidative stress.
Nutritional yeast may boost immunity
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.
While animal studies are promising, further research is needed to determine whether alpha-mannan and beta-glucan have these effects in humans.
Summary: Nutritional yeast contains the carbohydrates alpha-mannan and beta-glucan, which animal studies suggest may boost immunity.
Nutritional yeast may help lower cholesterol levels
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.
Beta-glucan is also found in other foods, such as oats and seaweed.
Extensive research shows that the beta-glucan from oats can significantly lower cholesterol levels.
Although the chemical structure of beta-glucan in oats is slightly different than the structure of beta-glucan in yeast, data suggests that they have similar cholesterol-lowering effects.
However, no study to date has investigated whether consuming nutritional yeast in its whole form has the same effects. Further research is needed.
Summary: The beta-glucan in nutritional yeast may help lower cholesterol levels.
How to use nutritional yeast
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.
Suggested read: What is fortified cereal, and is it healthy?
When properly stored, it can last up to two years.
Nutritional yeast is used in the following ways:
- 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.
It would require relatively large amounts of nutritional yeast to exceed the tolerable upper intake levels (UL) for the various vitamins and minerals it contains. Specifics vary between brands, so always read labels to be sure.
While nutritional yeast is safe to consume for most people, anyone who is allergic to yeast should not consume it.
Those who have trouble metabolizing folic acid (synthetic vitamin B9) should read labels carefully and may want to choose unfortified nutritional yeast whenever possible.
Summary: Nutritional yeast is shelf-stable for up to two years and can be added to many foods for a nutty, cheesy, or savory flavor and extra vitamins and minerals.
Nutritional yeast is a highly nutritious vegan food product with various potential health benefits.
It can be used to add extra protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to meals.
Studies suggest that nutritional yeast may help protect against oxidative damage, lower cholesterol, and boost immunity.
Nutritional yeast can be safely enjoyed by most people and purchased at your local health food store.