Nutritional or Brewers Yeast: What You Need to Know before Buying

by John Moody Natural RemediesComments: 10

brewers yeast in a bowlNutritional or brewers yeast is a popular supplement today, particularly among vegetarians. It is an excellent source of B vitamins and can be high in the minerals selenium or chromium depending on how it is processed.

Brewers yeast was originally discovered when people realized that the leftover sludge from beer making actually contained nutritional value for both people and livestock.

In Australia, this thick, moist, yeasty-smelling, black residue is sold in jars as Vegemite. Used as a popular sandwich spread, this cultural tradition was made famous by the band Men at Work in the 1980s with their #1 hit Land Down Under. The comparable food product in the UK is known as Marmite.

The difference between the food form and supplement form of brewers yeast is simply the state of the yeast. Supplement forms are dried and deactivated, whereas the moist food form found in jars is typically not.

Hence, those struggling with yeast overgrowth issues or on the Candida diet would do best to avoid food based forms. However, dried supplement powders, flakes and tablets have no risk of yeast colonization in the gut and therefore should pose no problems in the majority of cases. The one exception to this is if an individual has a yeast sensitivity or allergy in which case any exposure to yeast, deactivated or not, should be avoided.

Brewers Yeast Nutritional Profile

Many modern forms of brewers’ yeasts are no longer the castaways of the alcohol industry, but are “primary grown,” that is, grown solely for value of the yeast and its use as a supplement.

The subfamily of yeast used, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is the same one found in nutritional yeast flakes and baker’s yeast. This subfamily includes many different yeast strains adapted to different purposes: brewing, baking, and nutrition supplement making!

People favor brewers yeast as a (mostly) natural source of the B-vitamin family. The important minerals selenium or chromium are also provided depending on the manufacturer (1).

Those who struggle with B vitamin status due to gut imbalance or who lack certain nutrients found primarily in animal foods can find these nutrients in both brewers and nutritional yeast:

  • Thiamine (Vitamin B1)
  • Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
  • Niacin (Vitamin B3)
  • Pantothenic acid (Vitamin B5)
  • Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6)
  • Biotin (Vitamin B7 or Vitamin H)
  • Folic acid or natural folate (Vitamin B9)
  • Vitamin B12 (synthetic)

Brewers versus Nutritional Yeast

You may be wondering if there is any difference between brewers and nutritional yeast. To some extent, there isn’t much and the terms are used interchangeably. Both nutritional and brewers yeast:

  • Come from the same yeast family, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, though different strains.
  • Are inactivated forms of yeast. In other words, the yeast is no longer able to reproduce.
  • Are manufactured and processed similarly.
  • Have similar overall nutritional profiles depending on their growing mediums.

But …

It hasn’t always been this way!

Remember that brewer’s yeast was originally and only a happenchance find that the leftovers from beer making had nutritional value.

Nutritional yeast has always been “primary grown,” that is, grown solely for the value of the yeast and its use as a supplement.

Nowadays, most brewer’s yeast is primary grown just like nutritional yeast, that is, for supplement purposes only. When manufactured this way, it will not have the bitter taste of traditional brewer’s yeast, nor need debittering.

Nutritionally, both primary and deactivated forms of yeast supplements are similar.

So, don’t get hung up on whether you buy nutritional or brewers yeast. The most important thing is the growing medium, processing and handling. The one exception is chromium. Primary grown yeast supplements will be much lower in this mineral, and it may even be absent (2).

If you prefer one type over the other, or are taking yeast for a specific nutrient, make sure you read labels carefully and ask your source for details! The extreme importance of this step is explained further below.

Brewers Yeast Manufacturing Process

The current method for manufacturing nutritional yeast can be broken down into four main steps: seeding, cultivation, harvesting and drying.

Each step being done well is crucial to creating a final product that is nutrient rich. For example, many of the nutrients found in yeasts are heat sensitive. So depending on how the yeast is manufactured, stored, and transported, the benefits will either be protected, reduced, or even eliminated completely.

The B vitamin family in particular is notoriously heat and handling sensitive. This is one of (many) reasons people choose to drink unpasteurized milk instead of pasteurized, for instance. Good companies will go the extra mile to ensure that the nutrients are retained into final yeast supplement form and are worth the premium price.

Remember that primary made brewer’s yeast closely mirrors the processes used to create nutritional yeast. A description of the process according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, which recommends Frontier nutritional yeast as having an optimal, low temperature manufacturing process, is below.

The steps for manufacturing dried nutritional yeast veer from traditional methods. Commercial nutritional yeast cultures are grown in large quantities and handled in tightly controlled lab-like environments. Temperature and pH are carefully adjusted to optimize the growing rate of the microorganisms. The strains are also closely monitored for quality, and strict measures are taken to prevent contamination. Once the growing of the yeast is complete, the cultures are dried to render them inactive. This step prevents the yeast from reproducing or fermenting, and also concentrates the nutrients. From here the yeast is rolled into flakes or pulverized into powder for bottling (3).

Yeast products and MSG

Brewers and other yeast products contain glutamate, a naturally occurring and important amino acid. Fortunately, the concentration of glutamate is far lower than factory produced glutamic acid, aka MSG (monosodium glutamate).

Glutamate is actually a valuable, naturally occurring amino acid that helps give cheese, meat, mushrooms, and many other foods their rich, desirable umami flavor. The trouble is some individuals are highly sensitive to any glutamates, natural or otherwise. Even more people are sensitive to MSG, the highly processed and concentrated form. As a result, all glutamate has gotten a bad rap when it is really just MSG that is the problem for most people.

For many, the sensitivity is caused by the lack of enough or the complete absence of particular enzymes in the digestive track that breaks down glutamate. Oftentimes, problems with particular foods containing glutamate, such as traditional bone broth, are actually not caused by the food, but by compromised digestion. In those cases, a gut healing diet like GAPS or Autoimmune Paleo can help resolve these issues.

That being said, it is a good idea to source brewers yeast that is manufactured at low temperatures to minimize glutamate formation. If you are particularly sensitive to MSG and glutamate in general, you may wish to avoid this type of supplement entirely

Yeast Supplements a GMO Risk

Yeasts must be grown on a glucose rich medium. Hence, the contents of this medium are crucial for a quality final product. Since the mediums used are usually corn, sugar cane, or sugar beet based matrixes, there is a significant likelihood that unless otherwise stated, the yeast is grown on a genetically modified (GM) medium. This is because 95% of sugar beets grown in the US are genetically modified, along with 92% of corn (81% of corn in Canada) as of this writing.

Some manufacturers source organic or certified non-GMO ingredients for making their yeast products. But, if the label does not specifically state it, contact the company about the purity of their products before buying.

Gluten Contamination and Allergy Issues

Brewer’s yeast has other risks beyond contamination with GMOs and various agricultural chemicals like glyphosate used on these crops.

If you are gluten free, make sure you get a supplement that guarantees it is gluten free. Yeasts can be grown on grain based mediums including wheat. Thus, it is possible that the final product is contaminated with gluten residue.

In addition, some people are allergic to yeasts, including baker’s yeast as well as brewers and nutritional. This is a separate issue from Candida overgrowth, which these supplements do not encourage. If you or someone in your family has a suspected yeast allergy or sensitivity, these foods will probably not be right for you. If you are unsure, as with any change in diet or supplements, start small and watch how you feel and how your body reacts. This article on simple at-home allergy testing may prove helpful.

Synthetic Fortification of Yeast Supplements

Buyer beware! Some companies add synthetic nutrients to their yeast, especially vitamin B12, which is made naturally in only small amounts by the yeast.

So the reputation of yeast supplements as a completely natural source of B vitamins is actually quite untrue. Yeasts are a good source for SOME b-vitamins only, and the high amounts for many nutrients on many product labels are only because the yeasts are fortified with non-yeast created forms.

If the label lists B12, it is safe to assume that it contains added B12, most likely from a synthetic source and form.

Studies show concerns over synthetic B12. As such, people should beware of buying any yeast supplement that is fortified with synthetic forms of this vitamin which are not particularly effective anyway. In addition to synthetic B12, yeast supplements can be fortified with potentially dangerous folic acid. Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate which triggers serious health problems for those with the MTHFR gene mutation.

To give an example as to why you must ask before ordering, here is a response Frontier Natural Foods Co-op regarding their nutritional yeast. Incidentally, this is the recommended brand in homemade baby formula because it is low in glutamate. This answer below, however, gives one pause about using it for that purpose.

Thank you for contacting us. Our [Frontier] nutritional yeast is made with folic acid, not folate. Here is from our product detail. After the fermentation process is completed the yeast is harvested, thoroughly washed, pasteurized, and dried on roller drum dryers. The B vitamins are both naturally produced during fermentation, and added to the cream prior to the drying process. Riboflavin (B2) is created during fermentation. Additional Riboflavin (B2) is added after fermentation along with Thiamine (B1), Pyridoxine HCL (B6), Niacin and Folic Acid.

I hope you find this information helpful. If you have additional questions, please let me know.

Inconsistencies Among Yeast Manufacturers

While Frontier uses a very good manufacturing process that produces low levels of MSG, note that the company adds multiple, synthetic or unknown forms of many B-family vitamins to the final product!  Another contacted brand, Twin Labs Brewers Yeast, claims to not add any synthetic folic acid. The B9 in its brewers yeast is entirely folate, the natural form that causes no problems for those with the MTHFR gene.

Always be sure to ask about synthetic fortification before buying a nutritional yeast product if you are seeking an entirely natural product.

Health and Drug Contraindications for Brewers Yeast

People with poor or compromised digestion have to be very careful with brewers yeast and related products. A few health conditions, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, may be aggravated by consumption of nutritional yeasts.

As mentioned earlier, these products are likely high in chromium if made from beer manufacturing residue. Studies of chromium have produced inconsistent results with regards to helping to regulate and reduce blood sugar levels. Thus, someone with diabetes or any other blood sugar issues are advised to consult with a practitioner before using yeast supplements (4).

Also, those taking Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (Demerol drugs) need to avoid brewers or nutritional yeast supplements. The yeasts can contain high levels of tyramine, an amino acid that can adversely interact with monoamine oxidase inhibitor type medicines.

How to use Brewers Yeast Properly

So you’ve managed to source a brand of brewers yeast that is manufactured properly with low levels of glutamate and no synthetic vitamin fortification. It is GMO free and not contaminated with gluten.

If you’ve found such a brand, please let me know because I haven’t found one yet!

But let’s assume one is out there somewhere if not now, then hopefully in the future.

What now? How to use it?

There are several forms of yeast supplements available. Nutritional yeast typically comes in a powder or flake form and has a taste that is slightly cheesy. Brewers yeast in comparison can be bitter, though debittered forms are now available. If the brewers yeast is primary grown as with nutritional yeast (most brands are), it does not need to be debittered. If not primary grown, brewers yeast is more commonly found in tablet or liquid form due to the inherent bitterness.

If debittered or primary grown, both brewers and nutritional yeast can be mixed with liquids or added to foods and various dishes. Sprinkling it on popcorn is a wonderful and tasty way to enjoy it. One tablespoon per day is the typical dosage. Using more can cause digestive upset. In homemade infant formula, removal of the nutritional yeast is one of the first suggestions if baby experiences any gas or discomfort.

When combined with salt, brewers yeast helps create that sought after, savory flavor that is also known as “umami,” or the fifth taste. It is this flavor that makes slowly simmered stews, stocks, and other such dishes so delicious to our senses and stomachs.

Recall that the B-vitamin complex in yeast is heat sensitive, so it is best to add brewer’s yeast after cooking to glean the greatest benefits.

Brewer’s Yeast Bottom Line

Given the costs and concerns around brewer’s (and nutritional) yeast, and the availability of grass-fed organ meats, especially liver, it makes sense to stick with nutrient dense animal foods or other 100% natural animal and plant based supplements as much as possible over a possibly contaminated albeit “natural” supplement like brewer’s yeast.

If you do choose to use these supplements, it is best to find one that:

  • Contains no gluten or GMOs
  • Has no added/synthetic B12
  • Contains only natural folate (no folic acid, aka synthetic folate)
  • Is manufactured, processed, and handled to preserve the heat sensitive nutrients.
  • Packaged to protect the yeast from light (such as using drum drying instead of spray drying)
  • Low temperature processed to minimize glutamate (MSG) content
  • Is free of any other fillers or additives (rice flours, etc.)

What will you decide … to yeast or not to yeast?

John Moody is the director of Steader, author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses. He has two books forthcoming.

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