Nutritional Yeast Is a Staple For Dairy-Free Diets — But Is it As Healthy As it Seems?

Have you ever heard of nutritional yeast or, as it's affectionately known by the people who love it, "nooch"? This powerhouse ingredient, derived from a yeast species called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has been steadily gaining popularity among vegans, vegetarians, and health enthusiasts for years. Not only does it pack a nutritional punch, but it also adds a unique umami flavor and versatility to your meals.

Unlike its counterparts in baking and brewing, nutritional yeast is not just about its ability to ferment. It's nutrient-packed, specifically cultivated for its health benefits and known for its nutty, cheesy flavor. It's a complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids, and its B vitamin content makes it particularly beneficial for those following a vegan diet.

Read on to learn what makes nutritional yeast unique, its nutritional profile, its range of health benefits, and why it's a must-have in your pantry.

What Is Nutritional Yeast?

Nutritional yeast is a variety of inactive yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae that is grown on sugar beets or molasses. Unlike the yeast used in bread making, nutritional yeast doesn't ferment or rise. Instead, it's deactivated through a process called pasteurization.

Once harvested, nutritional yeast is washed, dried, and packaged as flakes or powder. During the pasteurization process, amino acids are released from the dead yeast cells, including an amino acid called glutamic acid, which imparts a rich umami flavor.

All this may sound a little strange — we're talking about a yeast grown on . . . beets? — nutritional yeast can be a staple for people who are dairy-free. While nutritional yeast is delicious in its own right, its bright yellow hue and savory flavor make it an amazing cheese substitute and flavor booster.

What Are The Nutritional Yeast Nutrition Facts?

Nutritional yeast packs a serious nutrient punch, offering a variety of essential vitamins and minerals.

The following nutrition information is based on a one-quarter cup (15-gram) serving of Bob's Red Mill Large Flake Nutritional Yeast. The percent daily value, or % DV, shown here, is based on an adult 2,000-calorie diet.

  • Calories: 60
  • Fat: 0.5 g
  • Sodium: 25 mg (1% DV)
  • Carbohydrates: 5 g (Fiber: 3 g, Sugar: 0 g)
  • Protein: 8 g
  • Iron: 0.72 mg (4% DV)
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamin): 11.8 mg (790% DV)
  • Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): 9.69 mg (570% DV)
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin): 46 mg (230% DV)
  • Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): 6 mg (300% DV)
  • Vitamin B9 (Folate): 1,080 mcg (270% DV)
  • Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin): 17.4 mcg (290% DV)

Nutritional yeast stands out for its array of B vitamins and contribution to a balanced diet thanks to its protein and fiber content.

What Are The Benefits of Nutritional Yeast?

As already mentioned, people who don't eat dairy love nooch for its ability to impart a cheesy flavor in cheese-free dishes, but vegetarians and vegans have another couple of reasons to love it: the protein and B vitamin content.

Unlike many plant-based protein sources, nutritional yeast is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine amino acids that humans cannot make on their own. Complete proteins are necessary for cell repair and growth, and while vegetarians and vegans can mix and match veggie protein sources to create meals with all nine amino acids, complete proteins can make meal-prepping simpler.

Nutritional yeast is also typically fortified with B vitamins. The B vitamins play a critical role in energy metabolism and the functioning of the nervous system. B12 in particular is almost only found in meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy — but it's also found in high quantities in nutritional yeast, which makes it a great option for someone who doesn't eat much animal protein.

In general, nutritional yeast is a great ingredient for people who have certain dietary restrictions: it contains no soy and gluten, and is low in sodium and sugar, all common nutrients that people keep an eye on.

Finally, nutritional yeast may help keep things "regular." It contains three grams of fiber per one-quarter cup serving. (That said, a word to the wise: don't increase your fiber intake too quickly, as this can result in uncomfortable gas and bloating. Also, ensure you drink enough fluids as you increase your fiber intake to help keep things moving smoothly through your digestive tract.)

What Is Nutritional Yeast Good For?

Nutritional yeast is versatile in the kitchen and is well-known for its cheesy, nutty flavor. Here are some ways you can use it:

  • As a cheese substitute: Sprinkle it on popcorn, pasta, or pizza for a cheesy flavor without dairy. You can also incorporate it into casserole and gratin toppings to achieve a deeper flavor.
  • As a seasoning: Add it to soups, sauces, and dressings to enhance their umami flavors. (It's a key ingredient in Baked By Melissa's super-viral Green Goddess dressing, for instance).
  • As a nutrient booster: Sprinkle it on salads for an extra nutritional punch. Alternatively, incorporate it into bread dough, muffins, or crackers, or sprinkle it on scrambled tofu to increase the meal's nutritional value.
  • As a thickening agent: Its texture can help thicken sauces (like gravy, vegan cheese sauce, or alfredo sauce), soups, dips, and mashed potatoes while giving a serious flavor boost.

The bottom line: trendy superfoods come and go. But nutritional yeast has proven that it has staying power. And for good reason. It's a versatile ingredient packed with essential nutrients and health benefits. Whether you're looking to boost your B vitamin intake, add a cheesy flavor to your meals without dairy, or simply enhance the umami flavor of your meals, nutritional yeast is a great choice. Its ease of use and delicious flavor make it a must-have in any health-conscious kitchen.

Sarah Glinski is a registered dietitian and health and nutrition writer with over six years of experience in the health and wellness industry. Her specialties include diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, gut health, and intuitive eating. She believes food is more than just nutrients and acknowledges the power food can have to heal and build community. As a nutrition professional who writes health content, Sarah uses the latest scientific research to guide her writing and recommendations. Her goal as a writer is to ensure that complex health information is made easy to understand and actionable so that more people can benefit from it.