I've been eating nutritional yeast essentially my entire life and love it on so many dishes, but I realize most people don't know what it is, so here's a quick rundown of its benefits and 11 ways to use it.
First of all, what is nutritional yeast? "Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast, often a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is sold commercially as a food product," Wikipedia writes. It's different from the yeast you use in baking because it doesn't foam or froth. Because it's inactive, it can't cause dough or bread to ferment or rise. You can often find nutritional yeast in the bulk bin of your local health food store.
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Nutritional yeast has several benefits. One big benefit of nutritional yeast is that it is often high in B12, an important vitamin that much of the population is deficient in. "The B12 in yeast is either included as an additive at the end of its manufacture, or else the yeast is grown in a B12-enriched medium," my handy "Healing with Whole Foods" book tells me. "The latter method is best because it incorporates the vitamin into the living food. (Some nutritional yeasts do not contain vitamin B12; to be sure, check the list of nutrients on the container.)"
Aside from B12, nutritional yeast is also a "complete protein," it contains other B vitamins, is low in fat and sodium, is free of sugar and gluten, and contains iron. "While fortified and unfortified nutritional yeast both provide iron, the fortified yeast provides 20 percent of the recommended daily value, while unfortified yeast provides only 5 percent," Wikipedia states. "Unfortified nutritional yeast provides from 35 to 100 percent of all of the B vitamins, except for B12. Fortified nutritional yeast adds 150 percent of vitamin B12 and 720 percent of riboflavin."
There is one thing to watch out for, though. From "Healing with Whole Foods": "Yeast is exceptionally rich in certain nutrients, and deficient in others that are needed for balance. The high phosphorus content of yeast, for example, can deplete he body of calcium; thus some yeast manufacturers now add calcium also."
Nutritional yeast is often used by vegans as an "alternative" to dairy products. I'm not a big fan of the idea of "alternatives" — cheese is cheese, cream is cream, and nutritional yeast is nutritional yeast. I would probably never make the analogy myself, but I guess it does have somewhat of a "cheesy" flavor. If you're looking to make a vegan version of a meal that includes melted cheese or Parmesan cheese, you probably want nutritional yeast.
The key when using nutritional yeast is that it is dry and flaky, so you need a bit of liquid to go with it — olive oil or fairly moist food works well. What foods go well with nutritional yeast? Many! I'm addicted to the stuff and like to mix it in with all kinds of dishes. I'm not the only one: It seems many people get somewhat addicted to the stuff. Over on Treehugger, Derek Markham and his family call it "hippie dust."
Here are 10 ways that my wife and I use nutritional yeast on a regular basis:
1. In any rice or pasta dish (with one exception)
Vegan mac and cheese gets a burst of healthy with the addition of nutritional yeast. (Photo: Mike Linksvayer/flickr)
I love mixing nutritional yeast in with rice and pasta dishes of almost any sort. There is one exception that I can think of, however. I don't like to mix it in with something containing tomato sauce. The tomato sauce seems to overpower it, so I don't see the point. That said, nutritional yeast does go well with actual tomatoes.
2. On bread or rice cakes
Whether as toast or as part of a sandwich, I love to sprinkle a little nutritional yeast on top of olive oil. When I'm in the mood for rice cakes rather than bread, I do the same thing on rice cakes. I particularly like these options with some lettuce and/or tomato on top.
3. With garbanzo beans
Well, I like nutritional yeast on various types of beans, and especially in rice or pasta dishes that include beans, but I also really love the simple dish of garbanzo beans plus nutritional yeast plus a little salt.
4. In soup
Mixing nutritional yeast in place of cream in soup can help thicken it. (Photo: John Cummings/Wikimedia Commons)
My wife noted that she likes to use it in some soups and sauces in place of cream (to thicken it). Note that we aren't vegan, but simply prefer soups and sauces made like that sometimes.
5. With yellow/green beans & spicy curry mix
A little bit of nutritional yeast, maybe olive oil, and salt on some yellow or green beans is delicious. For some extra spunk, adding in a somewhat spicy mix as well is extra tasty (we have some curry mixes we tend to use in this way).
6. Scrambled tofu
Adding nutritional yeast to scrambled tofu makes it especially tasty. (Photo: Crystal/flickr)
I tend to forget this, but I really love some scrambled tofu, tomatoes and potatoes for breakfast (or even just the scrambled tofu). Mixing in some nutritional yeast makes it especially good. With its high calcium content, tofu is a great match for nutritional yeast. Tofu actually has about twice as much calcium per 100 grams as milk (and it doesn't turn around and leach that calcium from your bones).
7. On popcorn
It's quite popular to sprinkle nutritional yeast on popcorn. It makes for a tasty and somewhat more nutritious snack.
8. With peas, corn and carrots
This is another simple dish but one I absolutely love. I used to eat this all the time for lunch. Mixed with a bit of tahini is especially good and provides that extra calcium kick that "Healing with Whole Foods" recommended. (On the other hand, "Healing with Whole Foods" isn't super fond of tahini.)
9. On salads
Sprinkle nutritional yeast on top of any salad. In this case, the croutons are made with nutritional yeast. (Photo: Carl Black/flickr)
Sprinkling some nutritional yeast on top of your favorite salad as an extra condiment is another option. This isn't my favorite way to eat it, as it doesn't seem to bring out the taste of the nutritional yeast much unless you make the salad quite powdery, but I do like it for a soft condiment once in awhile.
10. On steamed kale
Steamed kale and a smoothie get an extra healthy kick with nutritional yeast. (Photo: avry/flickr)
Kale is packed with calcium. It has more calcium per 100 grams than milk (and, again, kale doesn't turn around and leach calcium from your body).
11. On pierogi
Pierogi ("dumplings") is perhaps the most popular Polish dish. It's not common here to eat nutritional yeast, and I've never seen anyone else (other than my wife) put it on pierogi, but we absolutely love the combo, especially with pierogi ruskie.
This story was originally written in June 2014 for Treehugger and has been updated with the latest information.