Nooch But Make It Nacho: This Brand Wants to Make Nutritional Yeast Fun and Functional
Nutritional yeast is great, but not exactly chic. Can Wholier change that with nooch that's both flavorful and promises science-backed health benefits?
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My love affair with nutritional yeast started back in 2004. I had bought The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook by Joanne Stepaniak in hopes of impressing my new vegan boyfriend and decided to surprise him with a batch of “White Bean Crock Cheez.” Almost every recipe in the book required this mysterious yeast product I’d never heard of, so I trundled off to the then-unfamiliar health food store, and there they were: bags upon bags of fluffy yellow flakes, promising to make my food taste better and pump me full of B vitamins. Opening my first bag at home, I was delighted with its pungent, parmesan-like odor. Sheltered vegan that he was, my poor boyfriend had likewise never heard of nooch, and he gobbled up my bean dip with gusto — these were the days before Daiya and those mashed beans were the closest thing he’d eaten to cheese since 1997. Needless to say, we’re still together.
Some omnivores seem to have a hard time learning to like nutritional yeast, but I loved it right away, undeterred by its admittedly gloomy name. I started sprinkling it on pasta, breading cubed tofu in it, and just sneaking it into anything that required a certain oomph. Though I didn’t know it in those early days, what I was adding was umami via the glutamic acid produced by the nutritional yeast production process. Nooch is simply saccharomyces cerevisiae, the same strand of yeast that is used to make bread, but it’s prepared differently, rendering it no longer active. According to this Serious Eats primer by Alicia Kennedy, the savory flavor is actually created when the once-active yeast is killed. “As its cells die, the proteins that made up its cells break down and amino acids like glutamic acid…are released,” she explains. Ken Fornataro, chef and food scientist at Cultures.Group, added over email that nutritional yeast “tastes better than brewers yeast or baking yeast because it is a concentration of actual yeast cells, washed or de-frothed of both its growth medium (typically molasses) and any untasty metabolites.”
According to Fornataro, commercial nutritional yeast has been accessible in the U.S. since 1974. A small, devoted community of American vegans seem to have been aware of this magical flavor dust since its inception, but nooch has slowly inched into the mainstream as the North American palate became increasingly obsessed with umami and veganism became slightly less niche.
Recently, I’ve been seeing nutritional yeast showing up in all sorts of places, letting her glutamic acid shine in new and creative ways. Nooch is a key ingredient in a variety of pastas recipes by Alexa Weibel for The New York Times, the vegan Caesar salad at lauded NYC pizza joint Scarr’s, and Sohla El-Waylly’s Ranch “Fun Dip” inspired by idli podi.
It’s Time for Nooch 2.0
Now, some clever companies are doing some of that creative work for you — among them Wholier, a plant-based supplement brand that has just released its new “Gut Health Nooch.” An unflavored version is available, but I was excited by their flavored blends, the first of which is called Sweet Cayenne. A mixture of nooch, smoked paprika, several kinds of chile, turmeric, oregano, and more, I liberally sprinkled the sample Wholier kindly sent me on popcorn. My boyfriend, now a consummate nooch fan, devoured it, as did I. The flavor struck us as a subtle, refined version of powdered nacho cheese, and I mean that in the very best of ways. Wholier founder and owner, Lisa Gonzalez-Turner, tells me there are two other blends in the pipeline, one of which is “a mushroom situation” that sounds like it’ll be big news for my “beefy” seitan stews.
While a few other brands also offer noochy flavor blends, such as Bragg’s and Frontier Co-Op, what sets Gonzalez-Turner’s product apart is her effort to combine a great tasting product with one that also updates and modernizes the health supplement aspect of nutritional yeast. Unfortified nutritional yeast contains protein, fiber and B vitamins, as well as trace minerals like zinc, iron, and selenium. Manufacturers have also fortified their nooch with essential nutrients often missing from a vegan diet (like vitamins B12 and D) since Red Star came out with their “Vegetarian Support Formula” in 1975.
So how is Gonzalez-Turner looking to improve on good old Red Star? “Typically the vitamin B12 source in nutritional yeast is cyanocobalamin, whereas we use methylcobalamin, the active form,” Gonzalez-Turner told me. She acknowledges that debate exists in the scientific community about which form is better, but she works closely with nutritionists and doctors when she develops her products, and believes methylcobalamin to be the superior choice. Similarly, some nutritional yeasts provide vitamin D2, whereas Wholier’s nooch is fortified with the more bioavailable D3. But the most important innovation Gonzalez-Turner wanted to bring to the nooch scene was adding prebiotics sourced from mushrooms as well as three strains of probiotic. “Usually a prebiotic and probiotic would be a whole different supplement, but here you’re also getting the delicious taste of nooch, plus the vitamins you’d typically expect to find there.”
Though vague worries about my gut health haunt me as much as anybody, I am the type of vegan who spends a lot more time thinking about how to make things taste like cheese than what probiotic to take. I am also the type of vegan who, as a full-grown adult, currently takes her B12 and D3 in gummy form just because it feels like a little treat. Gonzalez-Turner in fact drew inspiration from the popularity of gummy vitamins when she formulated her nooch. “Given that people are trying to push themselves out of the capsule format and they want to have a fun supplement, there’s really a big space for nutritional yeast. We’re hoping to reinvent its usage for a wider net.”
While Wholier’s “gut health nooch” initially struck me as expensive, when I totted up the combination of vitamins I’d have to buy separately, plus the high-quality flavor additions, I began to view it differently. I use my table salt for basic cooking and a daily hit of iodine, but I sprinkle flaky finishing salts on at the end for their superior flavor and touted trace mineral content. Similarly, I could imagine still buying my big bags of bulk nooch to liberally throw in my broths, marinades, and sauces, then applying a healthy sprinkle of Wholier as both my “finishing nooch” and half my D3 for the day (it’s also best not to heat it too much to maintain the probiotic benefit anyway). And if having it around means scarfing popcorn becomes taking care of my precious gut-health? I mean, sign me up.
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