While hiking in Vermont, I stumbled upon this quaint little movie theater in Montpelier. They serve popcorn made with real butter, sea salt and this yummy, flaky, cheesy flavored stuff sprinkled on top.

It was 1996 when I first learned about nutritional yeast and I have been singing its praises from the mountain tops ever since. I also recommend visiting the actual Von Trapp lodge in Stowe, the inspiration for “The Sound of Music,” but I digress.

I really do tell everyone about the wonders of nutritional yeast. “You should try nutritional yeast on your popcorn!” I always say. And with a look of both intrigue and fear they reply, “What is nutritional yeast?”

Even though I’ve been putting it on popcorn and mixing it into food and beverages for years, I never really answered that question intelligently and succinctly. I would usually say something like, “It’s this stuff that tastes kinda like parmesan cheese. It’s loaded with B-vitamins, and it’s a complete protein.”

Then they’d usually say, “Well, that’s not a very appealing name, nutritional yeast. You need a better name.”

Although people don’t like the name, it really tells you a lot about what I consider a very under-acknowledged superfood.

Nutritional yeast is grown from yeast, a tiny form of fungi, like mushrooms but much, much smaller.

The “scientific” name for yeast is saccharomyces cerevisiae or sugar-eating fungus. Yeast cells use sugar for energy just like other living creatures.

Nutritional yeast, unlike yeast used in baking or making beer, is a deactivated yeast, made by growing it in a medium of sugarcane and beet molasses, then harvesting, washing, drying and packaging the yeast. It is candida albicans free, which means it can be enjoyed even by yeast sensitive individuals.

You can find nutritional yeast in the form of yellow flakes, my preferred choice. I like KAL and NOW brands. It’s also available in a gritty form, similar to cornmeal, but I find this version has a more pungent smell and flavor that’s a bit off-putting.

Nutritional yeast is available in bulk. While I advocate bulk foods, I don’t recommend nutritional yeast in bulk because it’s the richest source of the B-vitamin riboflavin, and riboflavin is sensitive to light. This is especially important for vegans and vegetarians who exclude milk and yogurt, the next richest source of riboflavin, from their diets.

Nutritional yeast comes in fortified or unfortified forms. The unfortified version, although lower in B-vitamins, is an excellent source of iron and all of the B-vitamins with 35 to 100 percent of the daily value for all B’s except B12. B12 is found in highest concentrations in seafood, red meat and fortified cereals. Nutritional yeast is a must for those who follow a vegetarian, whole foods-based, gluten-free diet.

Two tablespoons of fortified nutritional yeast flakes, the serving size on the nutrition facts label, contain 60 calories, 5g carbs, 4g fiber and 9g protein plus beta-1,3 glucan, a type of fiber that may aid the immune system and help to lower cholesterol. Additionally, nutritional yeast is a good source of selenium and potassium. Fortified nutritional yeast has significantly less iron than the unfortified kind, five percent versus 20 percent respectively. The B-vitamin content in the fortified form ranges from 150 percent for B12 to 720 percent for riboflavin.

If you follow a vegetarian diet, you might want to buy both the fortified and unfortified brands and mix them in order to receive ample amounts of iron and B12 and ward off any potential types of anemia.

Since your body can only absorb so much of any one nutrient at a time and since you need B-vitamins dispersed throughout the day to help your body convert food to energy, I recommend adding just a teaspoon of nutritional yeast to foods at each meal. One teaspoon mixes easily into any food or beverage, costs only nine cents and provides 10 calories, 3/4 gram of fiber, 1.5g of a complete protein, 50 to 100 percent of your daily value for all B-vitamins plus some selenium and iron.

I’m always trying to make the perfect quick meal for health-conscious people on the go. I developed this protein shake with 20 percent or more of every nutrient but adding just one teaspoon of nutritional yeast really knocks this shake out of the park. Thanks to my newly-named Nutritional Powerhouse Flakes!

Elizabeth Brown is a registered dietitian and certified holistic chef specializing in weight management, sports nutrition, disease prevention and optimal health through whole foods. She can be reached at eat2liv@earthlink.net.

Nutritional Powerhouse Shake

1 cup almond milk

2 Tablespoons Whey protein powder

1 Tablespoon cocoa or 1 cup berries

1 Tablespoon ground flax seeds

1/2 banana

1 teaspoon nutritional yeast

1 teaspoon super greens

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Blend with ice. Top with 1 Tablespoon each wheat germ and chopped walnuts

Per shake: 300 calories, 22g protein, 45g carbs, 12g fiber, 25-170 percent of every nutrient. One to one ratio omega-3 to omega-6 fats

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