All about nutritional yeast

Many dairy-free or plant-based recipes use nutritional yeast as an ingredient. It has a fabulously savoury almost cheesy flavour. But have you ever wondered what it actually is? And where it comes from?

When I first changed to a whole-food plant-based diet, I was very cautious about using nutritional yeast – mainly because it had yeast in the name! Having a yeast intolerance meant when I first made changes I had to cut out everything that was fermented or yeast related. So I avoided nutritional yeast, even though I didn’t really know what it was.

But over the years I’ve been able to experiment more and so many people told me how marvellous it was, I decided to have a look into it. Could I now eat it? I really wanted to (for the cheesy flavour!). Fortunately I could – with care. Which made me very happy!

Nutritional yeast can be used in a variety of ways:

  • savoury topping to pasta, rice, chillis etc
  • in home-made cheese alternatives like this dairy-free parmesan
  • in savoury sauces
  • in bakes like these tasty savoury scones

During this article I am going to share with you:

  • What exactly nutritional yeast is and how it’s made
  • Explore the nutritional benefits
  • Look at who needs to be cautious about eating this product

First though, let’s talk about the name, as if you walk into a shop and ask for ‘nutritional yeast’ you may get a blank face. First, there is a branding issue. In the UK, the most commonly shop-available version is Engevita, made by Marigold. It used to only be found in specialist health food stores, but as the the demand for plant-based products is growing, so is supply and you can often find it in main supermarkets now – hooray! The issue with this particular brand is that you won’t find the words ‘nutritional yeast’ until you look at the back of the packaging (this has caused a lot of confusion. I’ve had many messages asking me if it’s the right product!).

In the UK, you will find nutritional yeast flakes often called savoury (yeast) flakes in online shops. If you are looking as US recipes or blogs, you may find it called ‘nooch’. And in New Zealand it has the rather unattractive name of Brufax…. Different names, same product.

So, what exactly is nutritional yeast and how is it made?

To start, nutritional yeast is not a ‘real thing’. It’s manufactured and is therefore a processed food, something I tend to avoid. But let’s not judge it too quickly, as it has some pretty good benefits.

It’s made by growing a yeast – Saccharomyces cerevisiae in case you were interested –  on a sugar medium for a few days. The yeast is then harvested and heated to deactivate it. This is particularly pertinent to how yeast reacts in the gut. Essentially once deactivated it is ‘dead’ so it will not grow or proliferate once eaten. It is also different to the yeast used for baking and brewing, which is very much alive and kicking.

Once deactivated, it’s cleaned, dried and then broken down into flakes or powder, depending on the product.

What about the nutrition?

Unlike many manufactured foods, nutritional yeast does provide some really useful nutrients (I guess the name is a bit of a give away!). You’ll find fibre and protein as well as B vitamins and trace minerals like iron. But the level of nutrition does depend on whether the product you buy is fortified or unfortified. And it really makes a difference.

If you are just looking for flavour, then plain nutritional yeast is just fine. It has the protein and fibre, but less vitamins and minerals. However, if you want flavour and nutritional benefits, then you need to grab a fortified version.

How do you know which is which? The best way to know is to check if it comes with B12 – it if does, it will come with other goodies too.

I have heard people say that all nutritional yeast contains B12 but that is not the case. B12 is the most difficult vitamin to get on a plant-based diet and it is not found naturally in yeast. Rather it has to be grown separately and then added in. But once it is, it makes nutritional yeast a really useful dietary source. For example, in the Marigold product I buy, just 5g contains 2.2mcg of B12 – nearly the average daily intake. Not bad – although you’ll want to be looking at other sources of B12 as well.

It’s not just B12 that comes in the fortified version. There’s much more iron and enhanced amounts of other B vitamins. Zinc appears as well. All good stuff.

So who needs to be cautious?

Fortunately for most people, nutritional yeast is a perfectly safe and super tasty addition to recipes. As I’ve already mentioned, if you have a yeast intolerance then please use with extreme caution until you know how it affects you. And even then go for a moderate amount and not every day. If you have a yeast allergy (which does happen) then keep away from this product!

Some people are highly sensitive to glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid found in the the cells walls of yeast as well as vegetable, animals and fungi. This amino acid can be process into a sodium form to provide an umami flavour – monosodium glutamate. Whilst nutritional yeast is not MSG, if you are highly sensitive to it, you may find this product is not for you either.

That’s it, my lowdown on nutritional yeast. I hope you have found this helpful and now feel more knowledgable about this tasty recipe addition.

Are there any plant-based ingredients that are a mystery to you? Do let me know and I’ll reveal all! Or if you’re ready to dive deep into whole-food plant-based eating, you might want to check out my Eat Well Live Well course here.


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