Plant-based and vegan diets are exploding in popularity. From 2014 to 2017, according to Forbes, U.S. consumers identifying as vegans increased by 600%. For many people, cheese is the greatest obstacle to hopping on the vegan bandwagon. Of course, you don’t have to be 100% vegan to be healthy. In fact, some nutrition thought leaders argue that to maintain optimal health, consuming a little organic animal protein is ideal.
Regardless of where you fall in the political food spectrum—everything seems politicized these days, doesn’t it?—thanks to nutritional yeast, you can have your cheesiness without eating actual cheese.
With nutritional yeast, you can even make “noocho cheese,” which is a contraction of the hipster way of saying “nutritional yeast” and nacho cheese. Yes, it’s a great time to be a vegan when you can enjoy faux-nacho cheese that actually tastes incredibly similar to the real thing. Sort of like being able to enjoy pasta without the carbs.
What is Nutritional Yeast?
Otherwise known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, it’s a fungus. All yeasts are single-celled organisms you can only see under a microscope. Out of the approximately 5 million species of fungi on Earth (mushrooms are the fruit of fungi), about one percent are yeast.
Yeast is used to bake bread (baker’s yeast) and beer (brewer’s yeast). But here’s what makes nutritional yeast different, although all three of these yeasts are in the same S. cerevisiae family: nutritional yeast is inactivated, meaning it doesn’t ferment like brewer’s and baker’s yeast.
Although proponents of raw food claim that “living” food is beneficial for health because the cooking process doesn’t kill off the enzymes, with nutritional yeast, the fact that yeast cells are no longer alive in the crumbly, nutty, savory and cheesy-tasting final product might be a good thing.
This is because for many people, live yeast in baked goods and beer causes bloating and may further contribute to leaky gut.
How Is Nutritional Yeast Made?
It grows on something sweet. Most often, molasses or sugar beets are used to cultivate S. cerevisiae. After the yeast is harvested and washed, it’s heated to neutralize the live cells. In other words, nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast in powder form.
What Can You Eat With It?
The most popular thing to sprinkle “nooch” on is popcorn, pasta, casseroles, tortilla chips, stews and any entree that calls for a savory additive.
Is Nutritional Yeast Healthy?
Whether nutritional yeast is healthier than regular cheese is up for debate.
Regular cheese can be healthy, depending on how it’s processed, stored, and the quality of the grass consumed by the animal where it comes from, etc.
We can see from Mediterranean cultures that consuming cheese is at least neutral to health. The so-called French Paradox explains why the French can enjoy eating lots of cheese, which contains saturated fat, yet not suffer from the same metabolic disorders that plague the U.S.
But in the States, most cheese products are highly-processed. Plus, many people in North America lead very sedentary lives and eat lots of other processed foods. One may therefore conclude that cheese and other pasteurized dairy products contribute to systemic inflammation in the body.
As for what the benefits of nutritional yeast specifically are, the biggest one for vegans is that, along with seaweed/algae, it’s the best plant-based source of vitamin B-12, which is necessary for cellular energy.
Research in the journal, Nutrients, also suggests that it helps protect against pathogens like E. coli, salmonella enterica and C. difficile (the latter of which is a bacteria that can cause an infection; it’s prevalent among elderly hospital patients).
Nutritional yeast does this by preventing the bacteria from sticking to the cells of the lining in the intestines; producing factors that neutralize toxins, and altering cell-signal that’s associated with a pro-inflammatory response. In other words, despite the prevalence of candida yeast infections, nutritional yeast does not contribute to an overgrowth of yeast in the gut, and may in fact protect gut health by reducing inflammation.
In addition, nutritional yeast—also rich in fiber and protein—possesses gut-friendly properties by improving mineral absorption, and by protecting the intestine’s first line of defense: the mucosal barrier.
The research in Nutrients also suggests that nutritional yeast is virtually identical to the yeast species Saccharomyces boulardii, which is the only yeast that functions as a probiotic. S. boulardii is one of the best natural remedies for diarrhea, and is recommended by naturopathic doctors for travel to developing countries.
So does that mean you should carry a pouch or bottle of nutritional yeast with you whenever you travel? Well, there’s no guarantee that sprinkling some on your food will prevent a nasty bout of food poisoning. But at the very least, you’ll be able to enjoy cheesy taste and mouthfeel without suffering from any digestive upset caused by lactose intolerance or sensitivity.