Actually, golden flakes is, in all likelihood, overstating the real color of nutritional yeast – a deactivated yeast, in which “yeast cells are killed during processing and inactive in the final product” – but more on this later. It is more like a soft brown, a pleasing beige even (it most closely resembles the original ProNutro that my mother embraced like manna during our childhood). But it always feels golden when you watch this staple of plant-based living tumble onto your plate, holding the promise of adding umami flavoring to whatever lies beneath it.
Umami you say? Yes. Again ask lovers of nutritional yeast what they like about it and they will tell you that it tastes slightly nutty, a little bit cheesy and carries with it the ability to deepen the savory flavor of just about any food. Also, it has a slight crunch and, if you’re like me, you know that crunch in food adds a subtle, irresistible layer of pleasure to whatever is being eaten.
If you think that the umami quality of nutritional yeast means it contains monosodium glutamate to which, after happily sinking our teeth into it for decades, we now give a very wide berth, let me stop you. nutritional yeast does contain glutamate – the main component of many proteins and peptides – but not the kind that has a sodium atom added to it. So you could actually think of it as MSG without the health side-effects that some people experience when consuming the flavor enhancer.
In fact, nutritional yeast somehow ups the saltiness of anything you shake it onto but, happily, contains almost no salt. The label on the bag that I have in my cupboard says what it does contain is protein (a pretty dense amount at 46.6g per 100g) along with vitamins B1, B2 and B6 and folic acid. Many brands are also fortified with B12, which makes taking this essential supplement easy. And not just for vegan but for most humans because the fact is that, in a time of factory farming, cattle are no longer getting their B12 and B12-producing bacteria from clumps of dirt around the grass roots that they would ordinarily pull up when grazing, meaning even the non -vegans among you should be supplementing.
But what precisely is nutritional yeast? As its name suggests it is a type of yeast – which is itself one of humankind’s oldest ingredients, used to make leftated bread in Ancient Egypt in 1500–1300 BCE and China some 700 years later, and which remains an integral part of our everyday life.
Nutritional yeast is made from a single-celled organism – a fungus, like mushrooms – called Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is a very long way away from its nickname of “nooch”. It’s grown on beet and sugar cane molasses (sounds a little strange but they are what provide the glucose for it to grow), then harvested, washed and heat-dried, which deactivates it (so there’s no using it as a way to plump up your bread loaves).
Ready to start using this wonderful substance?
You’ll be happy to know that incorporating nutritional yeast into your life is exceedingly easy. Vegan chefs and nutritionists frequently include it in recipes, like this mouthwatering one for plant-based Chicken à la King from Cape Town-based The Green Dietician. In our house, we are never without it, sprinkling it over soups, salads, pastas and savory bakes. It also makes a great topping for popcorn when we’re watching films at home, always reminding us of those canisters, heavy with toppings, that we would head to with our boxed popcorn before settling into our seats at the movie theaters at Hyde Park Corner Shopping Center.
My son is a field guide in Pafuri where – no exaggeration – he’s one of the few vegans in several hundred kilometers. He tells me he always makes sure he has at least two bags in his room, stocking up when he is in Joburg between his six-week stints at the game lodge. His favorite nooch snack? Take a slice of bread, toast it well, slather it in vegan butter and top it with lashings of nooch and generous grindings of black pepper. Eaten this way, it was a great alternative during the Great Marmite Shortage of early 2022 (which I’m ashamed to say, saw me buying as many supersized jars as I could afford when I happened on a stash at Food Lover’s Market back in January ).
I was curious to know whether nutritional yeast brings my vegan friends as much small joy as it does me.
musician Laurie Levine sends me a voice note: “I have nutritional yeast in my cupboard, and I love it because it has loads of protein and is filled with vitamin B12 which is something that is quite difficult to get as a vegan,” she says. “It’s kind of got this umami flavor and is slightly crunchy so I use it over pasta and salads. It adds this texture to whatever you are eating, making it feel more substantial. It also gives you that cheese-kick you would get from dairy cheese.”
Amy Grewar, who is the manager of The Center, a conscious event and holistic practitioner space in Noordhoek, tells me, “I love nooch! I put it in my homemade pesto, which is delicious, and in as many pasta dishes as I can. It gives things a little extra umami boost and it is just wonderful!”
One caution: nooch is processed so if you’re committed to eating pure wholefoods you can try making something similar with sprouted chickpeas and miso – and there is also a substitution using yellow moong dal that is perfect if you’re on a budget. But for those of you who want to try nutritional yeast with minimal effort, you’ll find a number of different brands in your local health store or at outlets like Clicks or Dischem. Go on. Give it a sprinkle. DM/ ML/ OBP
Ed’s note: This article is an Op-Ed and examines one person’s joy in adding nutritional yeast to food. Nutritional yeast might have some potential side effects – please check with your health practitioner before adding it to your own diet.
In case you missed it, also read On sharing the joy that being a vegan brings me