I like the flavor of nutritional yeast flakes on steamed vegetables. What makes this yeast nutritional? Does it provide health benefits?
Nutritional yeast has a savory, cheesy, umami taste, which can add complexity to simple vegetable dishes. Another popular use is as a flavor booster for mild carbohydrate foods like popcorn and rice. And yes, consuming yeast has interesting potential health benefits.
Yeasts are single-celled fungi. The most common yeast in food is Saccharo┬¡myces cerevisiae, which ferments carbohydrates (often sugars) into carbon dioxide and alcohol. That’s how we ferment grape juice into wine, brew grain into beer and make bread rise. Yeast supplements, including nutritional yeast and brewer’s yeast (a byproduct of brewing), are strains of Saccharo┬¡myces cerevisiae that have been inactivated. These yeasts have been killed and can no longer ferment carbohydrates.
Thick, spreadable yeast extracts, popular in the United Kingdom and Australia, are also inactive byproducts of brewing. These contain a significant amount of salt and are beloved (or despised, depending on whom you talk to) spreads for toast.
A quarter-cup of nutritional yeast flakes has 8 grams of protein, 3 g of fiber and respectable quantities of trace minerals and B vitamins (USDA 2019). Nutritional yeast can be an important source of vitamin B12 for vegans, since other┬¡wise B12 is found only in animal foods.
In small studies of people with type 2 diabetes, daily brewer’s yeast supplements have been shown to reduce blood pressure (Hosseinzadeh et al. 2013) and decrease blood lipids, including triglycerides and LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol (Khosravi-Boroujeni et al. 2012). Brewer’s yeast and nutritional yeast also contain beta-glucans, prebiotic fibers that may help to stimulate the immune system. So keep using your nutritional yeast for flavor, and enjoy the health benefits, as well.