Nooch. Nature's Cheeto powder. Hippie dust. You may or may not have already heard of nutritional yeast—or one of its weird nicknames—but it's about time you did. It's long been a secret weapon of the vegan community for adding cheesy, umami flavor to food without going near the dairy case. (If you don't know about umami, it's basically the best thing that's ever happened to your taste buds.)
This isn't active baking yeast or brewer's yeast. And it definitely has nothing to do with infections. Think of it as Parmesan's hipster vegan cousin that you totally want as your new BFF.
What Is Nutritional Yeast?
Nutritional yeast is a nonactive, cultured strain of yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae, to be exact), says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., author of Plant-Powered for Life. It looks like yellow fish food flakes and can be found in most natural food stores. It is usually grown on molasses, deactivated with heat, and dried into the flake form. (You're probably still weirded out, but keep reading.)
The Health Benefits of Nutritional Yeast
It's often enriched with vitamin B12, which is only found naturally in animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products, says Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., from the department of nutrition at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. So for vegans or vegetarians who don't consume animal products, nutritional yeast can be a great replacement.
"It is also a good source of the B vitamins riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, and folic acid," says Palmer, which (depending on the brand) can provide more than 100 percent of your daily recommended value of most of these B vitamins in a 1-tablespoon serving.
Nutritional yeast serves up about 3g of high-quality protein per 20-calorie serving (again, depending on the brand). And it contains all nine essential amino acids, which are required in the diet to build protein.
"If you are on a plant-based diet, it's important to make sure you're choosing foods that furnish all of those amino acids," says Palmer. It's not necessary to get them all at once in a single food; as you consume them over the day, your body creates an amino acid pool. "If you eat a balanced diet—legumes, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds—you'll gain amino acids from all of those sources."
But if you can get them all in one delicious, cheesy topping? Win-win.
There's no real risk of being allergic or intolerant (now you have no excuse not to try it). However, nutritional profiles vary from product to product, so check the back before you buy. (Brands like Bragg's and Bob's Red Mill are popular and relatively easy to find.)
How to Eat Nutritional Yeast
"Think of it as a replacement for Parmesan cheese," says Palmer. Add it to stews, soups, salads, and casseroles, or sprinkle on top of popcorn, pasta, or whenever you'd like to add a savory bite.
If you need more ideas, try using it to make a healthy, nondairy version of your favorite cheesy foods, like Cauliflower Mac 'n' Cheese, Dairy-Free Pesto, or Vegan "Cheesy" Broccoli Soup. All the flavor of real cheese, minus the dairy and fat? We're officially boarding the nooch train.