When you hear the word fungus, your immediate reaction may be thoughts of unpleasant skin concerns. How about edible fungus? Instead of saying “ew,” you should actually be saying “yum!”
Some notable types of fungus that are part of the food supply are mushrooms and yeasts. So that artisanal sourdough bread you love is actually made with fungus!
Baker’s yeast is just one kind of yeast. There is also something called nutritional yeast that can add unique flavors to foods and potentially support health. Let’s review the benefits of nutritional yeast and discuss how to add it to your diet.
Nutritional yeast is made from a fungus called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. It’s grown in a sugar-rich environment and then killed during the manufacturing process, so it’s not alive in the final product.
Nutrition yeast is sometimes called “nooch” by adoring fans. It provides a cheesy flavor to foods and is often described as adding an umami (or savory) taste.
As the name suggests, nutritional yeast has nutritional value. This is because it contains B vitamins and is often fortified with vitamin B12. It has become popular with those following a vegan diet as an important source of B12 (more on this later).
Here’s a little food science for you:
Baker’s yeast is used to help dough rise. When making bread dough, for example, water reactivates the yeast so it “wakes up.” The yeast then eats the sugar in the flour and produces ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result. The CO2 gas is trapped by the gluten in the dough, causing it to expand. The yeast is then killed off by the heat of the oven and you’re left with a tasty loaf of bread. Science!
If baker’s yeast is used to bake, then brewer’s yeast must be used to do what? Brew!
Brewer’s yeast is also purchased alive and is used to brew beer. The yeast eats the sugars in malted grains and produces alcohol. So soft pretzels and beer wouldn’t be possible without live Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Nutritional yeast is still made from S. cerevisiae, but it’s not the same. Unlike baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast, nutritional yeast is killed off before packaging. Another key difference is that nutritional yeast is often fortified to bump up its nutrient content.
As we’ve discussed, Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the most widely used type of nutritional yeast. It can be a source of B vitamins and nutrients, especially chromium and selenium. Chromium is necessary for the maintenance of normal blood glucose levels, while selenium promotes a normal function of the immune system.
Another less-known species is Yarrowia lipolytica. This yeast contributes to the production of a number of important nutrients, including bioavailable proteins, essential amino acids, and trace minerals.
A specific strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae called Saccharomyces boulardii is actually considered a probiotic. It can be beneficial to the gut microbiome and promotes a normal balance of microbes in the intestines. It also helps support a healthy immune system, and can provide overall gut health support.
Nutritional yeasts are a rich source of amino acids, single cell proteins, several bioavailable minerals, and B vitamins. The minerals in nutrition yeast include chromium, selenium, zinc, iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae can also be a source of antioxidants. Research shows that a certain strain of S. cerevisiae isolated from fruits contains the antioxidant glutathione. Antioxidants support the health of cells by helping to protect the body from free radicals.
Let’s talk more about the potential benefits of nutritional yeast.
Nutritional yeast may help support energy levels.
As we mentioned, S. cerevisiae is a source of B vitamins and B vitamins are needed to help convert food into energy. If someone is deficient in B vitamins, especially vitamin B12, they may have an improvement in energy if they get more B12 in their diet or from a B12 supplement.
Beta glucans are a type of fiber that is present in yeast. Research shows that they may help support a healthy immune system. They can also help support the health of the gut microbiome, which can have an impact on the health of the immune system.
The amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and minerals found in yeasts may help support healthy skin, hair, and nails.
Research suggests that nutrition can support the health of hair, so a good diet overall is key. But sometimes supplements can help fill in gaps in nutrition needs. A keratin supplement can also be beneficial for hair, skin, and nail health.
Remember the beta glucan fibers found in yeast that we talked about earlier? While there are no direct studies on nutritional yeast and heart health, there are studies that show that beta glucans can be beneficial.
More research is needed to determine if nutritional yeast can provide these same observed benefits.
Vitamin B12 is necessary for the health of blood and nerve cells. A vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to weakness and fatigue because the body is not able to make enough red blood cells. B12 deficiency can result from poor absorption by the body or from not getting enough B12 in the diet.
Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal foods such as fish, meat, eggs, and milk. According to the National Institutes of Health, “people who eat little or no animal foods, such as vegetarians and vegans, might not get enough vitamin B12 from their diets.” Therefore, they must get B12 from supplements or fortified foods.
Nutritional yeast has been shown to be helpful to bridge nutrient gaps for children on a vegan diet. However, the researchers cautioned against using nutritional yeast as the only source of B12 supplementation.
For adults, one study looking at mostly raw vegan diets recommended supplementation with B12 sources. They showed that the use of nutritional yeast helped support B12 levels in this population.
Want to start using nooch in your cooking? There are so many ways to use nutritional yeast to bring some savory into plant-based dishes!
Since nutritional yeast has a cheesy flavor, many people use it in place of cheese. You can sprinkle it over pasta, chili, or soups. You could also use it on a vegan pizza instead of cheese.
Here is just one of the countless recipes for making vegan cheese sauce with nutritional yeast!
Looking for some salty-crunchy cracker action? Give these “nooch crackers” a try!
It may sound odd, but you can absolutely use nutritional yeast in smoothies.
Nutritional yeast can add a kick of nutrients and some extra thickness to your shakes. Just remember that it does have a cheesy flavor, so start with a small amount so you don’t overpower your drink. Adding some sour fruits like pineapple can help balance out the taste.
Nutritional yeast may be a good way to add nutrients and flavor to foods, especially for those who avoid animal products. Research shows that there are a wide variety of potential benefits of nutritional yeast. Nutritional yeast can be a tasty way to get more vitamin B12 and fiber into your diet!