It took only 50 years, but nutritional yeast has finally gone mainstream.
“Nooch over everything” reads one sticker available for purchase online, the text appearing on a yellow canister not unlike the ones used by Bragg nutritional yeast. On another site, a “Nooch God” T-shirt shows the same bottle between two prayer hands, yellow flakes showering out from the opening. With a cheeky nickname and a new audience of experimental chefs and home cooks, nutritional yeast — long associated with hard-core vegans — has found a broader audience.
Nielsen reported that sales of nutritional yeast in the United States increased 20 percent between February of 2019 and February of 2020. In that time, market greens tossed in a nutritional yeast vinaigrette appeared on the lunch menu at Ssam Bar in Manhattan’s East Village. At the Los Angeles cafe Sqirl, a Caesar salad with nutritional yeast croutons was served alongside a rib-eye for two on the decidedly nonvegan Valentine’s Day menu. Omnivorous recipe databases (like NYT Cooking) are using nutritional yeast as a seasoning in creamy pastas and atop homemade popcorn.
The process of making it is almost as unsexy as the name — the fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as Brewer’s yeast, is grown on cane and beet molasses for nutritional yeast. Once fermented, the yeast is harvested, washed, pasteurized and dried. The latter two steps deactivate the yeast’s leavening ability, its main differentiating factor from active dry yeast or Brewer’s yeast. The resulting flakes are mustard-yellow, their shape and texture often likened to fish food.
Some companies that carry the product advertise its high protein content and B-complex vitamins, especially B12. That was the main selling point when Bob’s Red Mill added nutritional yeast in the 1970s. As Sarah House, a representative from Bob’s Red Mill explained, a vegan diet “can lack sufficient B-complex vitamins, especially B12,” and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast is an easy way to supplement.
Marion Nestle, a food studies and nutrition professor at N.Y.U., remains unconvinced by any health claims. “Nutritional yeast don’t make vitamin B12, so that has to be added to meet that particular requirement,” she said.
Its increased popularity in recent years can be pinned to “the claims made for it on the internet,” she said. “The advice is to take nutritional yeast for everything that ails you. The lack of specificity is always a hint that these products are nutritional magic, without much science behind it.”
The only reason to eat it, Ms. Nestle believes, is for the flavor. “I don’t think this stuff tastes good, but other people like it,” she said.
While recipe sites continue to tout nutritional yeast as a “superfood,” curious home cooks appear more interested in it as a seasoning than a supplement. “I am zero percent interested in the nutritional part of nutritional yeast,” said Rebecca Firkser, a freelance writer and recipe developer in Brooklyn. Ms. Firkser uses nutritional yeast when she needs a hit of umami, “but the dish doesn’t need more salt and cheese isn’t quite right — sesame noodles, popcorn, salads, roasted vegetables, rice, crackers, in a savory granola-mixed nuts-homemade party mix situation.”
For many cooks, including Ms. Firkser, a vegan friend or blog post was their entry point to cooking with nutritional yeast — the product is most often cited in vegan cookbooks and blogs as a cheese substitute. A recipe on BuzzFeed blends yeast with cooked potatoes and carrots to create vegan “noocho” cheese dip, and it appears on ingredient lists for popular vegan products like Amy’s Vegan Rice Mac & Cheeze. But plenty of newer nooch fans think of it less as a cheese substitute, and more as a seasoning all its own.
Agela Abdullah, a home cook in Chicago, started cooking with the yeast around 2009. “One of my friends was vegan and introduced me to it,” she said. Ms. Abdullah is not vegan — in fact, she works for a cheesemaker and has been in the cheese industry for a decade. “I think nutritional yeast tastes more nutty than cheesy,” she said. “It’s also a bit salty to me. Almost umami flavor.”
There’s a reason nutritional yeast is so often compared to cheese: It contains naturally occurring MSG.
“Monosodium glutamate is just the sodium version of glutamic acid,” said Christine Clark, a cheese writer and educator based in Burlington, Vt. “Glutamic acid is umami. More aged cheeses, like Parmesan, develop more glutamic acid.” Ms. Clark is a nutritional yeast fan, but she, like Ms. Abdullah, doesn’t find it comparable to cheese. “It doesn’t have the same fat and protein as cheese, which really help round out the umami flavors.”
Whether it’s the perceived health benefits or the surge in pantry stocking by home cooks, nutritional yeast sales have soared in the past months. From February 2020 to March 2020, online sales for Bob’s Red Mill nutritional yeast jumped 400 percent, “an unprecedented increase” in month-over-month growth for the brand, Ms. House said. Bragg sold more of its yeast in March than ever before. Both brands are scrambling to mill, package and ship more yeast to meet the new demand of online orders.
It’s unclear how much of the sales are from vegans concerned about their B12, or curious, cheese-loving home cooks who had seen yeast on restaurant menus and finally have the time to experiment with it themselves. “Both of these trends have led the customer base for nutritional yeast to expand well beyond the core group of vegans and vegetarians,” Ms. House said.
But there is still one sure way to differentiate the old guard of nutritional yeast fans from the new. When Ms. Firkser recently asked her boyfriend to grab some, she said, “He literally couldn’t find it because the container said ‘nutritional yeast’ and I’ve never said ‘nutritional yeast’ before, only ‘nooch.’ ”