Have you heard of nutritional yeast? I hadn't until a couple of months ago when I reviewed a cookbook that used it as an ingredient. Now I find myself using it more and more. I love finding and learning about new foods, and thought I would share some of what I've learned about this odd ingredient with you.
So, what is nutritional yeast? Nutritional yeast is a deactivated form of the fungus (yes, yeast is a fungus) Saccharomyces cerevisiae that has been grown on a molasses-based medium. The molasses gives it more flavor than either brewer's or baker's yeast. The yeast is dried and sold as a powder or a flake. Nutritional yeast has a cheesy or nutty flavor - think cheesy umami flavor. It's often used by vegans for its cheesy flavor.
What's special about nutritional yeast? Nutritional yeast is loaded with protein (50% by weight!), B-vitamins, essential fatty acids, and folic acid. Some brands, but not all, are fortified with B-12. (The vitamin B-12 is produced by bacteria and then added to the yeast during the growing process. Not all companies do this, but Red Star apparently does.) The addition of B-12 makes nutritional yeast especially popular among vegans and vegetarians, as B-12 is an important nutrient that can be hard to get if you don't eat meat. It's also low in sodium, which is great when you're trying to impart a little extra flavor without loading up on sodium.
How do you use nutritional yeast? It's apparently a very popular topping for popcorn in some areas and because of its cheesy kind of flavor is often used in place of parmesan cheese in vegan diets. I've been sprinkling it onto vegetables like lima beans while I cook them. It adds a very subtle pleasant flavor to them. It could also be a salad topper. Its flavor is mild enough and pleasant enough that it really could be used on many different foods with good effect.
Where can you find nutritional yeast? You can order on-line or many health food stores sell it. Red Star is a very popular brand, and one of the brands that adds B-12 to the yeast. (If you're specifically consuming nutritional yeast for the B-12, read labels carefully! They aren't all fortified with B-12.) Nutritional yeast is sometimes sold as "savoury yeast flakes" or "vegetarian yeast."
Whatever you do, don't confuse nutritional yeast with brewer's yeast! I had two health food stores in my town tell me that they're the same thing - one even sold nutritional yeast (as vegetarian yeast) without knowing it. Brewer's yeast is a byproduct of the brewing industry and has a bitter flavor. It's the same deactivated yeast strain, but the growing medium is decidedly different resulting in decidedly different flavors.
Also don't use active, bread making yeast in place for nutritional yeast. Active yeasts are still alive and may continue to grow in your intestines resulting in you not getting all of the nutrients out of your food as you should.