Deeply embedded in our culture, but mostly half-forgotten, Marmite has recently become a press phenomenon: open any paper and there is a mention of its unique properties. Love it or hate it; it will have been your parents’ fault most likely, and their parents and their parents’ parents, way back to 1902 when a bright spark of a German scientist, one Professor Justus von Liebig, found a use for the lees of beer – technically known in the brewing industry as the “dregs”.
Home brewers are totally familiar with the sludge in the bottom of their bottles. To industrial brewers, this by-product was an infernal nuisance. Since the Neolithic period its only use had been as an animal feed (but toxic to dogs).
These dregs contain spent yeast which can be made into a smooth extract by adding salt to a watery suspension. This hypertonic solution breaks down the sturdy yeast cells which self-destruct on being heated. Needless to say, this process is a serious secret.
Professor von Liebig was a big cheese in the food world, and, prior to that specialisation, had been a leading contributor to the establishment of organic chemistry as a science. Before Marmite, he had had a major hand in the perfection of the concentrated beef extracts Oxo and Bovril.
The Bass Brewery supplied the first Marmite factory in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire, with the necessary dregs. It was a fabulous hit – its extreme and feisty taste was astonishing to a public whose only other condiments had been vinegar, and salt and pepper. A revelation.
By 1912, by the age of 28, the Polish-American chemist Casimir Funk had formulated the concept of vitamines (“vital amines”). The first vitamins described were the B’s. The lack of vitamin B1 (thiamin) was soon recognised as the causative factor of beri-beri, a secretive and sly disease, which, at the time, had an amorphous spectrum of symptoms, all giving rise to early death. It still kills deprived infants.
The vitamin B content of Marmite was quickly discerned in the hectic scientific world of the new 20th century. This gave Marmite a monumental sales boost. By the start of World War I, it was included in all British soldiers’ rations.
Now made by Unilever, the present formulation has been heavily tweaked with extra riboflavin (B2) and folic acid (B9), and with vitamin B12 which is not a natural constituent.
As a result of all this ancient history, we have tended to believe in Marmite’s virtues without fully understanding what it might do for us exactly. It has respectable annual sales of £28 million, representing 11.6 million jars (2016), Bovril, the beef extract, also from Unilever, briefly vegetarian, a football favourite, sells 3.5 million jars. No competition, and so there must be some sense in it, but what?
Marmite’s early publicity campaigns extolled its healthy virtues, proclaiming “a small quantity added to the daily diet will ensure you and your family are taking sufficient vitamin B to keep nerves, brain, and digestion in proper working order”: not exactly snappy, but accurate.
The vitamin content and the percentage of the recommended daily allowance (%RDA) for an 8g serving is as follows:
Vitamin Per 8g serving %RDA
Thiamin (B1) 1.09mg 99%
Riboflavin (B2) 0.68mg 49%
Niacin (B3) 6.9mg 43%
Folic Acid (B9) 120mcg 60%
Vitamin B12 2mcg 80%
NB. Marmite is not gluten free.
Vitamin B12 boosts GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain, which regulates excitability of the neurons controlling anxiety, ADHD and Tourette’s Syndrome – hence the current enthusiasm. Lack of B12 in the diet can cause debilitating pernicious anaemia and neuropathy. Obviously at risk are those avoiding animal products – vegetarians and vegans. Also at risk are those taking medications which reduce stomach acid – which inhibits absorption of B12.
Thiamin (B1) lack causes beri-beri which is characterised by wasting and neuropathy. Food sources are whole grains, meat and fish.
Riboflavin (B2) helps to metabolise carbohydrates into glucose, our source of energy, and also fats and proteins. It is an antioxidant, fighting off damaging free radicals of oxygen, which exacerbate ageing and promote cancers and heart disease.
Niacin (B3) lack causes the disease pellagra in underdeveloped countries through malnutrition. It is found in meat and seafood. Wheat flour is often fortified with niacin.
Folic acid (B9) is found in dark green leafy vegetables (folium, Latin for leaf). Its lack is a cause of large celled anaemia. Most importantly its lack in early pregnancy can be responsible for neural tube defects (NTDs) in babies. Many countries have mandatory fortification of foods. Strong recommendations of an adequate daily dose of 400mcg (micrograms) are made for women intending to conceive, to be taken prior to and during pregnancy. A blood borne amino acid, plasma homocysteine, if high, and in conjunction with a low folic acid level, can cause cognitive impairment, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Supplementing the diet with folic acid will lower plasms homocysteine. Folate deficiency is a feature of excess alcohol consumption.
Well, if this little diatribe does not persuade you to consume your daily dose of Marmite, I know something which might.
At the WellMan Clinic, we have adopted a recipe of a vitamin B combination that was used in clinical trials by Oxford and Oslo Universities. It has been found that neuronal function is dependent on the adequate presence of folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6, pyridoxine, and that the severe deficiency can give rise to psychiatric disease and dementia (1).
Please contact our Practice Manager for details.
1. PMID 25173634 – B vitamin polymorphisms and behavior: evidence of associations with neurodevelopment, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and cognitive decline