That time I ate so much nutritional yeast I got a rash

26 Apr

nutritional yeastAre you familiar with nutritional yeast? If you’re not a vegan, vegetarian or health nut, you probably aren’t. I remember I went in search of it 6 year ago(!) when my health nut phase was just beginning and no one in the UK had ever heard of it. In fact, they sold me brewer’s yeast, which is absolutely not the same thing. (I wrote about it in this post, where I also marveled at the concept of almond butter. Funny how quickly things change, almond butter is all over the US and UK now and while still expensive, it’s way cheaper than £11!)

Nutritional yeast is a deactivated yeast that is grown on molasses. It has a nutty, almost cheese-like flavor, which is why it’s popular with vegans. It’s also popular because it’s high in B vitamins and often fortified with B12, which is normally only available through animal products. I’ve been enjoying it for years now, sprinkling it on pasta, soup and sweet potatoes, but ever since I went pescetarian 6 months ago, I’ve been eating it even more.

A few days ago I was making one of my favorite dinners — lentil and chickpea pasta with kale, mushrooms and pesto, and got out the container of nutritional yeast so I would remember to stir some into the pasta at the end. All of a sudden it hit me how hungry I was, and there was no way I could wait 9 minutes for the pasta to be done. I needed to eat immediately. So I got out some stale rice crackers and sprinkled them with the nutritional yeast (or “nooch” as those in the food blog community often call it). When I finished the rice crackers, I grabbed a pinch of just nutritional yeast and sprinkled it into my mouth. Then suddenly I had a spoon in my hand and was shoveling the nooch into my mouth like it was cereal. This was not a proud moment, but I convinced myself it was better than binging on nut butter, and nutritional yeast was nutritional — it has it right there in the name! I wasn’t keeping track of how much I was eating, but considering a serving size is 5g, I probably ate at least 50g, maybe even 100g. Did I mention I’m not proud of this?

I finally cut myself off and got to prepping the vegetables. I boiled water for corn and reached my arm across the hot pasta burner to get the corn pot. I didn’t think much of it, but a few minutes later my arm started to burn.

“I didn’t get that close to the burner, there’s no way I burned myself!” I thought. I looked down at my arm. It was red. Really red. In fact, both arms were. They were covered in hives like I was having some kind of allergic reaction, but there was nothing around for me to be allergic to. My skin was hot and itchy like I had a sunburn. I ran to the mirror and saw that my face and ears were also red.

“What is happening to me?!” I said out loud.

I ate my pasta with one hand, the other hand imputing my symptoms into Google on my phone. The only culprit I could think of was the nutritional yeast, even though I’d eaten it hundreds of times before. There was no way I could be allergic to it!

I searched nutritional yeast and hives until finally I got an answer.

Niacin.

Nutritional yeast is high in B vitamins, one of which is niacin. I remembered reading about niacin as a possible cholesterol lowering supplement, but when I asked my doctor about it, he said it’s not usually recommended anymore because of the flush.

The flush.

I was having a niacin flush. I had consumed so much nutritional yeast I gave myself a niacin flush.

I looked at the nutritional label of the nooch. A 5g serving has 17mg of niacin, which is already 107% of the recommended daily amount. If I ate 50g of nooch, that would be 170mg of niacin, and I probably ate more than 50g of nooch. Google tells me that consuming 100mg or more of niacin can trigger a flush, so that had to be what I was experiencing.

I was relieved to find the cause of my reaction and embarrassed that my binging had such immediate physical results. It was definitely a wake up call that just because something is healthy doesn’t mean you should consume spoonfuls of it. Even water can be toxic in extreme amounts!

I laid off the nooch for a few days, but I’m happy to report that I had some on my pasta tonight with no adverse effects. There’s nothing like a good red, hot rash all over your body to make you conscientious of recommended serving sizes!

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