If you’re like me and looking to cut down on your consumption of cheese, you’ll have noticed something: cutting it out of your cooking is a challenge. Cheese is one of those ingredients we take for granted. Getting rid of it isn’t easy.
What can replace cheese?
If you’re looking in the plant kingdom, the answer is “not much.” But if your search includes fungus as well, you’ll inevitably stumble across nutritional yeast.
But what is it? And how can it benefit your health?
What Is Nutritional Yeast?
Nutritional yeast is something of a godsend. It allows you to give your dishes the flavor of cheese (or umami at the least) without actually including any dairy at all. What’s more, it doesn’t involve the exploitation of animals, hurt the planet, or attack the lining or your arteries.
Now that’s the type of cheese that I want to know more about!
Nutritional yeast is, as the name implies, just a type of yeast. The reason it has the moniker “nutritional” has to do with the way that it’s prepared. It’s suitable as an ingredient, just like salt, pepper or oregano, it’s for direct consumption.
Nutritional yeast is the same species as both brewer’s and baker’s yeast. The difference is that nutritional yeast is killed before it is packaged. Brewer’s and baker’s yeast remain very much alive because both bread making and beer brewing rely on active yeast metabolism.
I find nutritional yeast semi-miraculous. It has all of the flavors of cheese but none of the downsides. It doesn’t come from animals. There’s no cruelty involved. It’s virtually absent saturated fat, and it comes in small particles, allowing you to give any dish a cheesy kick. It’s almost too good to be true.
There are downsides, of course. You can’t, for instance, get Wensleydale nutritional yeast or nutritional yeast which tastes just like Edam. Nutritional yeast all comes from the same species of yeast: Saccharomyces cerevisiae. There aren’t different varieties that will emulate the flavor of your favorite cheeses. What you get is a generic cheesy taste that doesn’t resemble any type of cheese more than another.
Fortified And Unfortified
If you pop into your supermarket or look for nutritional yeast online, you’ll see that manufacturers offer two varieties: fortified and unfortified. Fortified nutritional yeast is a bit like enriched bread. The manufacturer adds isolated vitamins and minerals to the yeast to make it more nutritionally complete.
In the case of nutritional yeast, you’ll typically find that manufacturers add precisely the kinds of vitamins and minerals that people eating its products might lack. For example, a fortified nutritional yeast product aimed at vegans might have added B12, a vitamin that is absent from a strictly plant-based diet.
Unfortified nutritional yeast only contains the vitamins and minerals naturally present in the yeast. Manufacturers do not add any additional nutrients to the mix.
The Top Benefits Of Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast comes with a variety of benefits that make it something of a nutritional superstar, many of which are backed by scientific studies.
1. It’s Nutrient-Dense
There’s a growing realization in the nutrition science community that if we want to be healthy, we have to eat more nutrient-dense diets. A nutrient-dense diet is one which contains a lot of nutrients per calorie consumed. So, for instance, eating a weekly menu of greens and beans would be nutrient-dense because you get a lot of nutritional bang for your buck. A diet of cakes and soda is the opposite – you’re hardly getting any nutrients for every calorie you consume.
Nutritional yeast is on the nutrient-dense end of the spectrum. A little bit like herbs and spices, you won’t eat a lot of the stuff. But what you do eat will provide your body with substantial nutrition.
Here are the three critical nutritional takeaways from nutritional yeast:
- It contains a full complement of amino acids, just like meat, dairy, eggs, and plant food.
- It is high in trace minerals like zinc, molybdenum, selenium, and manganese, which can be challenging to get on a regular, Western diet.
- It is high in B vitamins. A single tablespoon of nutritional yeast provides between 30 and 180 percent of your RDA.
Of course, fortified nutritional yeast is more nutrient-dense than unfortified, but both versions have exceptional dietary properties.
2. It Helps To Normalize Cholesterol Levels
Ever since the work of Ancel Keys and Mark Hegsted, we’ve known that there’s a strong link between the level of cholesterol in the blood and the development of heart disease. You can plot the relationship on a graph with surprising accuracy.
Nutritional yeast, however, is rich in beta-glucan, the same component that gives oatmeal its heart-healthy properties. Research suggests that when people eat a diet high in beta-glucan, their cholesterol levels fall naturally.
3. It Can Boost The Immune System
If you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, then nutritional yeast may help. Tantalizing evidence suggests that the two main carbohydrates in nutritional yeast, alpha-mannan and beta-glucan, can reduce the frequency of infections.
The evidence for this comes from studies in animals. Researchers exposed pigs and mice to a variety of nasty bacteria, like E. coli and then fed them the carbohydrates in nutritional yeast. They found that animals who ate these carbs were less likely to get infections.
Nutritional yeast appears to boost the immune system through several mechanisms. The first is that yeast particles attach to toxins in the stomach and help to transport them safely out of the body before they can get into the bloodstream. The second is by stimulating the immune system directly. Nutritional yeast appears to energize your immune cells, making them more potent in the fight against infection.
Finally, nutritional yeast may have compounds which prevent harmful bacteria from sticking to the walls of the intestines and gaining a foothold. Further research is needed, but these early findings are promising.
4. It Contains Antioxidants
The human body evolved in the context of an antioxidant-rich diet. All those nuts, seeds, and berries our hunter-gatherer forbears ate packed a serious antioxidant punch. Nutritional yeast does too – and because it’s a fungus, many of the antioxidants it contains are unique.
Researchers are interested in two antioxidants in particular: glutathione and selenomethionine. These antioxidants appear to specifically help the liver process heavy metals and other environmental toxins. Nutritional yeast can, therefore, help you fight off some of the hazards of living in the modern world. You can’t avoid heavy metal and toxin contamination – it’s everywhere. But you can eat foods, like nutritional yeast, which helps you process it more effectively.
5. It Can Help To Prevent B12 Deficiency
B12 was the last essential vitamin to be discovered by science. Bacteria that live in the soil make it. Animals eat fodder containing B12 produced by bacteria that then goes into their muscles as they grow. When people eat meat, they also consume a small amount of B12.
People often view B12 deficiency as something which solely afflicts vegans, but anyone, meat-eater or not, can be a victim. Fortified nutritional yeast containing B12 may help everyone avoid deficiencies. It’s particularly useful for long-term vegans who wish to supplement their diet.
The amount of nutritional yeast you need to restore blood levels of B12 is remarkably small. Studies show that just a tablespoon each day is enough to boost levels in the body to physiologically normal levels.
Of course, if you do believe that you might be deficient in B12, go along to your doctor. They’ll be able to provide you with a reading of your current levels and give you advice for how to bring them back up into the normal range.
6. It Helps To Support Pregnancy
Unfortified nutritional yeast may support pregnancy by improving overall maternal health. Nutritional yeast fortified with folic acid may help avoid congenital deformities and promote healthy growth of the fetus. Research from the United States Preventive Services Task Force suggests that women consume between 400 and 800 mcg of folic acid daily.
7. It Lets You Recreate Your Favorite Cheesy Dishes
And finally, my favorite thing about nutritional yeast: it lets you recreate some of your favorite dishes, without the cheese.
You can use nutritional yeast for all kind of beautiful faux-cheese dishes, including:
- Nacho cheese dip
- As a substitute for parmesan
- Stirring it into creamy soups for a cheesy kick
- Using it to make cheese sauce for burgers
- Using it in nut stuffing
So what have we learned about nutritional yeast?
We’ve learned that not only is nutritional yeast good for your health, but it’s also a great way to help you get that cheesy flavor you crave in your cooking, without using any actual cheese.
Nutritional yeast, I submit, therefore, is a somewhat miraculous product. It’s rare in the world of nutrition that you can have something delicious that’s also beneficial for your health, but nutritional yeast is a genuine exception. I can imagine eating comfort food all year long with this ingredient in my pantry.