And is this umami-packed vegan ingredient good for you?

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nutritional yeast flakes on wooden spoon
Credit: Getty Images/Nedim_B

The umami-packed celebrity condiment of the vegan pantry, nutritional yeast—affectionally called nooch—is getting love across dietary borders. It's definitely not just for vegans anymore. The yellow flakes, resembling powdery fennel pollen (or fish food, depending on your point of view), pack a flavor-boosting punch once only associated with MSG. With its dairy-free—yet distinctly cheese-y undertones—nutritional yeast is touted as a mouth-watering superfood containing protein and essential micronutrients. As a food enhancer and supplement, it has risen to the top of social media food feeds. Why is nutritional yeast so popular and should you be eating it? And are there any health concerns associated with this appealing supplement? Ahead, we'll explain everything you need to know about this tasty, versatile vegan ingredient.

The current popularity of glamorous nutritional yeast owes everything to its lowly and bitter close cousin brewer's yeast, a by-product of the brewing industry. Along with baker's yeast, nutritional and brewer's yeast are usually strains of the single-celled fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae (occasionally other species are used). Unlike active—meaning living—baker's yeast, which makes our breads and cakes rise before expiring, nutritional and brewer's yeasts are both inactive, or dead. Brewer's yeast is killed by rising alcohol levels and pasteurization in the brewing process, while the application of heat in the manufacturing process of nutritional yeast kills those cells. The dried results become our supplements and condiments.

Let's backtrack. In the early 20th century, just as vitamins were being discovered and defined, scientists in Europe and the United States were learning that brewer's yeast, a cheap waste product, had high nutritional values. The iconic English yeast extract Marmite was developed in 1902 from brewer's yeast and became viewed as a fortifying supplement. In the U.S., chemist Atherton Seidell published a 1917 paper titled The Vitamine Content of Brewer's Yeast, advocating for its use in the treatment and prevention of deficiencies. Fast forward a few decades: While brewer's yeast was an unappealingly bitter by-product, more palatable nutritional yeast was cultivated specifically as a supplement. In 1950, dried nutritional yeast flakes were first manufactured in the United States by Red Star. Yeast supplements grew in in popularity as activist-eaters embraced plant-based diets.

While brewer's yeast feeds on the sugars that are formed by grains in the brewing process, nutritional yeast is grown in a glucose medium like sugar cane or beet molasses before being processed and fortified. As a result, nutritional yeast is considered gluten-free. Both yeasts are high in fiber, and both are considered complete proteins (other complete proteins include red meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, quinoa, and soybeans). Both are rich sources of B vitamins. Fortified nutritional yeast products also contain vitamin B12 (brewer's yeast does not), but it is not naturally present. Unlike nutritional yeast, brewer's yeast contains the essential trace mineral chromium.

What's Not to Love About Nutritional Yeast?

On the downside: Both brewer's yeast and nutritional yeast contain the amino acid glutamic acid, or glutamate, which irks MSG critics. And the presence of tyramine—which affects blood pressure—will adversely affect anyone with an allergy to tyramine as well as people taking MAOI or MAO-B drugs, causing a potentially dangerous hypertensive crisis (known as "cheese syndrome" when it is caused by food; strong cheeses, soy, cured foods, sourdough bread, fava beans, and beer can have the same effect). A mild form of the reaction would be a headache.

Finally, brewer's yeast is associated strongly with inflammation (so much so that it is used to laboratory settings to induce inflammation in unfortunate test subjects).

How to Use Nutritional Yeast

Because nutritional yeast is high in nutrients, but is still dairy-free and usually gluten-free, it remains a useful and flavorful supplement for people with food allergies or sensitivities, as well as anyone on a restricted diets. It is low in fat and contains no sugar or soy. If you have never eaten nutritional yeast before start small and do your homework. Its high fiber content may cause a tummy rumble (a little goes a long way, regardless).

Stir it into soups and sauces, or blend it into dips, mashed potatoes, and puréed cauliflower. Sprinkle it over hot popcorn, pasta, vegetable bowls, and avocado toast, and incorporate it into crisp homemade seed crackers. Toss it over raw sliced tomatoes, and scatter it across your favorite quick pickles. Make it the secret weapon in your mac and no-cheese. And nutritional yeast is close to essential if you would like your new nut cheese project to sing with flavor.

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