Yeast is a natural organism that's found in the air as well as in and on your body. You probably think of it as the substance that makes bread rise and beer become booze — both things to be thankful for.
There are more reasons to appreciate yeast, though. It's beneficial in ways that might surprise you.
Here are just a handful:
A punch of nutrition
When yeast is eaten on its own in the form of nutritional yeast — deactivated yeast that's sold specifically as food — it's full of nutrition. Many varieties contain a healthy dose of B12, something our diets are generally lacking. It's also a non-animal source of complete protein, contains iron, and is sugar-and gluten-free. Vegans often use it as a replacement for Parmesan cheese and have found that it can be used in a dairy-less faux-Alfredo sauce.
A touch of medicine
Brewer's yeast, the same type that can be used to make beer, has many of the same nutritional properties that nutritional yeast does, but there's evidence that it has additional medicinal purposes. The chromium found in this type of yeast may lower blood sugar to help control diabetes, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
It also may lower LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels while increasing HDL ("good") cholesterol levels, reduce body fat and possibly even improve acne. Brewer's yeast is available as a dietary supplement in powder, flakes, tablet and liquid form.
A boost of flavor for chocolate and coffee
Coffee and chocolate would be different if it wasn't for yeast, according to Science magazine. When the beans of cacao and chocolate are cracked opened, their natural yeasts are exposed. Researchers aren't exactly sure how — perhaps it happened when traders from the East and West carried goods along the Silk Road — but over time as people migrated, they brought microbes of yeast with them and those microbes intermingled, creating new strains. Since the type of yeast used can affect flavor, the intermingled yeasts most likely changed the flavors of foods like coffee and chocolate.
A big part of biofuel
Yeast helps convert sugars in plants into biofuel. The most well-known example is ethanol produced from corn, but many plants can undergo the same process, including pine trees. Researchers have recently developed a super yeast that can increase the percentage of pine that can be reconverted, so the waste and unsalable timber from pine plantations now have the potential to become fuel.
A new way to clean polluted water
Genetically modified (GMO) baker's yeast may be the answer to water that's polluted with heavy metal, according to Engadget. The GMO yeast uses a "cell membrane 'anchor,' and peptides that bind with metals like cadmium, copper and nickel to absorb their ions." About 80 percent of the metal ions are eaten up by the yeast, and then the yeast can be extracted from the water. It's still in experimentation mode, but if it turns out to work the way scientists think it may in real-world applications, it could be an environmentally friendly way to purify polluted water.
The key to the 'Happy Accident'
Many of these reasons to appreciate yeast are quantified. It may purify water. It might lower "bad" cholesterol. There's one definite when singing yeast's praises. Yeast created what is known as the "Happy Accident," the bubbles in Champagne. Tradition says that sparkling wine was discovered when a monk named Dom Perignon thought the yeasts in some bottles of white wine had been all used up in the conversion of sugar to alcohol. But cold temperatures had just made the yeast dormant. When the weather warmed up and the yeast activated again, CO2 in the form of bubbles formed in the bottles and the bottles burst from the bubbly wine. While the story about Perignon may by a well-loved myth, some winemaker at some point in history figured out that this happy accident made a very enjoyable beverage.