Meet Nutritional Yeast (That's "Nooch" For Short)

nutritional yeast

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Photo by: Stephen Johnson ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Stephen Johnson, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

The name sounds strangely antiseptic, and the powdery flakes look suspiciously like what you'd sprinkle into the goldfish tank. But that does not deter certain cooks and bloggers (mostly vegetarian and vegan ones) from singing the praises of nutritional yeast. So what exactly is this supplement and what has it done to deserve a spot on the health food hot list?
What It Is

Although it shares a name with the same stuff used to get bread to rise, nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of yeast. So it's not a leavening agent and it won't froth when it hits liquid. And because it is not derived from animal or wheat products, it's considered vegan and it's also gluten-free. You'll find it in both powder and flake forms, in bulk bins of health food stores and in shaker bottles. And as for the less-than-fun name, the vegan blogosphere has taken care of that by nicknaming the stuff  "nooch."

What's In It

Those little flakes pack a surprising number of nutrients. "They’re a really good source of protein, dietary fiber, various minerals including zinc, magnesium and copper, as well as B vitamins," says Mary Ryan, RD, owner of Beyond Broccoli nutritional counseling, in Jackson, Wyo. "They've been popular among vegetarians and vegans for decades as a way of getting these nutrients without any animal products."

In terms of key stats: One and a half tablespoons of the yeast has 70 calories, 4 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber. It's important to note that nutritional yeast has to be fortified with B12 -- it doesn't contain it naturally (no plant foods do, which is why it's such a tough nutrient for vegetarians and vegans to obtain). Jack Norris, RD, executive director of Vegan Outreach, recommends Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula Nutritional Yeast because it does contain respectable amounts of B12, plus B2 (aka riboflavin) and B6.

How to Use It

Vegans are especially fond of "nooch" for its savory flavor, which can be reminiscent of cheese. This is why if you search the Internet for vegan mac-and-cheese recipes, nutritional yeast is usually one of the starring ingredients. You can cook with it (mainly as a means of replicating cheese flavor) or you can sprinkle some onto food after it's cooked for an extra kick -- hence the yeast's popularity as a virtuous popcorn topping for anyone looking for an alternative to butter or Parmesan.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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