What’s the difference between nutritional yeast and brewer’s yeast?
This week’s topic comes from a reader. Elizabeth writes:
I’m wondering if you would talk about nutritional yeast. I recently found out about this food product and noticed that you could put it on popcorn and it tastes pretty good, like cheese! I was just wondering how much of it is safe to eat and if it’s really that healthy for us.
You’re right that nutritional yeast is good on popcorn! That cheesy flavor makes nutritional yeast flakes particularly popular with vegetarians. It makes a decent dairy-free substitute for grated parmesan cheese. And, true to its name, it is reasonably nutritious.
There’s another product similar to nutritional yeast called brewer’s yeast, which is spent yeast that’s left over from the brewing process. It’s also nutritious, but with some important differences. For one thing, it doesn’t taste that good on popcorn!
What is Nutritional and Brewer’s Yeast?
Nutritional yeast and brewer’s yeast are both related to the kind of yeast you use to make bread. Baker’s yeast (used for bread) is a living organism, of course. When you rehydrate it and give it some sugar to eat, it will start blowing bubbles for you, and this is what makes your bread rise—or in the case of active brewer’s yeast, what makes your brew boozy.
Nutritional yeast and the kind of brewer’s yeast you find in health foods stores aren’t living organisms. They’re deactivated, so they won’t ferment into alcohol and they won’t make anything rise. So why do we bother? Because deactivated yeasts are quite rich in nutrients, particularly B-vitamins.
As Elizabeth noticed, nutritional yeast, has a tasty, cheesy flavor that a lot of people enjoy. But just how nutritious is it?
How Nutritious is Nutritional Yeast?
Eating a heaping tablespoon of nutritional yeast is like taking a high-potency B-vitamin complex. A serving will generally stock you up with a couple of days’ worth of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, and B12, and a substantial amount of folic acid. Nutritional yeast also packs a decent amount of fiber and protein into a pretty small, low-calorie package. All in all, as cheesy-flavored toppings for popcorn and pizza go, it’s pretty impressive.
How Nutritious is Brewer’s Yeast?
Brewer’s yeast, on the other hand, doesn’t really taste all that good. It can be quite bitter. People who use brewer’s yeast as a nutritional supplement usually do what they can to mask the flavor by adding it to juice or smoothies or even just taking it in capsules as a vitamin supplement.
Brewer’s yeast also has a very different nutritional profile. It contains relatively modest amounts of B vitamins, equivalent to what you might find in a bowl of fortified cereal. But it has a lot of minerals not found in nutritional yeast, particularly chromium. Chromium is important because it helps keep your blood sugar steady. Because it’s quite a bit denser than nutritional yeast, a tablespoon’s worth contains more protein but also more calories.
Is Nutritional or Brewer’s Yeast a Good Source of Vitamin B12?
Both brewer’s and nutritional yeast have a reputation for being a good vegetarian source of vitamin B12—and this is of particular interest to vegans, who are at increased risk of B12 deficiency.
It’s important to realize that most but not all nutritional yeast products are fortified with B12. If you’re counting on nutritional yeast as your primary source of B12, check the label to be sure that the brand you are buying is a good source.
For more information about B12 and vegetarianism, here’s a fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health.
How Much Nutritional Yeast Is It Safe To Eat?
As for how much nutritional yeast it’s safe to eat, if you take in more B-vitamins than your body can use, the excess will be excreted in your urine so I don’t think there is any risk of nutrient overdose or toxicity from eating too much nutritional yeast.
As for brewer’s yeast, one to two tablespoons a day is the recommended amount for adults. You might also want to read this article from the University of Maryland about brewer’s yeast, which notes some potential drug interactions. And if you have an allergy to yeast you should avoid both brewer’s and nutritional yeast.
How to Use Nutritional Yeast
Although brewer’s yeast is perfectly good for you, I don’t use it myself because it doesn’t taste that good. I can cover those particular nutritional bases with other foods that I like better. I do use nutritional yeast from time to time because I enjoy the flavor and it’s fun to eat things that taste good and are also really good for you!
Like Elizabeth, I like to sprinkle it on popcorn. It’s also good on steamed vegetables or mixed into scrambled eggs. And in this week’s newsletter, I’ll include a recipe for a really delicious sandwich filling made with tofu and nutritional yeast. You can sign up for newsletter by clicking here.
Don't know the best way to store nutritional yeast, or long it's shelf life is? Find out in my Quick Tip about storing nutritional yeast.
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Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!
B12 Fact Sheet (National Institutes of Health)
Brewer's Yeast (University of Maryland)
Nutritional Yeast image courtesy of Shutterstock