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What Is Nutritional Yeast, and Why Do Vegans Love It?

This strange vegan “cheese" deserves all of your affection
Vegan Mac Cheese
Photo: Tasting Table

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I love cheese. So much, in fact, that I've actually Googled "how much cheese is too much for one day?" out of fear for my health. (Answer: One full-fat ounce is recommended; any more is discouraged. Whoops.) Needless to say, I could never be a vegan. But despite my obvious proclivities, I'm a big fan of vegan "cheese."

Somehow, over the course of my short life, I've found myself falling in love with the world's most unappealing-sounding food: nutritional yeast. This dry, mustard-colored seasoning has long been every vegan's favorite substitute for cheese, and, surprisingly, it really does taste cheesy.

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But the question remains: What exactly is this strange, mysterious substance?

Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast, grown on molasses plants before being harvested and dried. As FatFree Vegan Kitchen says, it's in no way an animal product, as yeasts or part of the fungi family. According to Bon Appétit,  it's the same strain of yeast used to leaven bread, but has been pasteurized, which helps bring out its natural nutritional benefits. It's also vegan; gluten, salt, egg, cholesterol and sugar free; and contains a load of B vitamins, protein, fiber and iron. In other words, it's a miracle food.

Nutritional yeast is also blessedly versatile. The flaky powder is often added to eggs, soups, stews and sauces, sprinkled onto popcorn or pasta, or combined with cashews to create a surprisingly creamy vegan cheese. And at just 20 calories a tablespoon, it's the ideal alternative to traditionally fatty cheeses.

Though multiple brands of nutritional yeast are available in stores, Bragg seems to be the most readily available. (Look out for the trusty yellow packaging bearing the smiling faces or Mr. Bragg and his daughter, Patricia.)

When it comes to flavor, I'll admit nutritional yeast can be a bit of an acquired taste. While its  pleasant nuttiness closely resembles finely grated Parmesan, it also has a character all its own. However, in the face of all its weirdness, I can say with confidence: Give yeast a chance.  

I won't pretend I'm ready to give up on actual cheese, but I do urge everyone to reap the benefits of this miraculously healthy, wonderfully cheesy and vibrantly yellow superfood. Rest assured the real-deal dairy stuff will always be there whenever you need an old-fashioned fix.

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