Marmite – Love it or Loathe it

Marmite. I love it! But it divides people more than anything else. Yes, even more than congressional politics! You either love it or loathe it; no one stands between the poles of passion.

In case you haven’t tried it, or have only seen a little brown jar with a bright yellow cap on a grocery shelf, I had better explain. It’s something that Brits love to spread on buttered toast (Aussies have Vegemite instead, which tastes slightly less “raw”).  It is very savory and very salty and MUST be spread very thinly. I remember serving it to a naïve guest who coated it as thickly as he would peanut butter and jelly on a slice of bread.  I raised my hands in horror, standing back as if to distance myself from an imminent blast from a foghorn. The expression of pain on his face afterwards was awful to behold. We never saw him again.

Marmite looks like thick engine oil that hasn’t been changed for over 20,000 miles. Often confused with Bovril (boiled-down cow), it is actually wholesome vegetarian stuff.  A century ago, a Mr. Gilmour of Burton-on-Trent in the English Midlands had a brainwave. He had noticed the Bass Brewery in his town was carting away waste yeast cells (“lees”) for farmers to spread on their fields as fertilizer. He wondered if he could make something more profitable from the sludge. He did. By salting and cooking the cells by a secret process he created a brown goo, which his family declared delicious. Soon afterwards, a factory was raised in the town for manufacturing Marmite, whose name derives from the French name for an earthenware pot (depicted ever after on the label). It quickly became popular throughout the Empire.

During World War One, it was added to the rations of British troops serving on the Western Front. In World War Two, it was given with kindly intentions to German prisoners-of-war, but they probably believed their captors were subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment.

To be a Marmite-lover you have to be exposed when you are very young. Growing up in Scotland, my sons were frequently served it on fingers of toast, which we called Marmite soldiers.  My mother had a craving for the stuff when she was pregnant with me. Most Marmite soldiers are made, but I was born one.  Others should only eat it disguised in stews and gravies.

I believe in a good diet, but I am not much of an enthusiast for so-called health foods which come and go in fashion as the latest research first extols then repudiates them.  But Marmite has striking virtues because yeast is a rich source of B vitamins, and manufacturers throw in extra vitamin B12 for good measure.  Regrettably, the Danish Government banned this ambrosia from Albion in 2011 because it is vitamin fortified. Perhaps the Danes don’t realize that Marmite should be consumed only in tiny servings, but they could have a point insisting on a label to warn people who are taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors (it’s the tyramine).

Marmite soldiers – Yum!

Believe it or not, Marmite never goes off, even when it’s kept where it should be – on the pantry shelf. In the refrigerator it sets like a rock. This gave me an idea for a novel medical application. If nothing grows in it because it is very concentrated like honey, I wondered if it would block infections when spread over an open wound.  When I told my American wife I would try the experiment next time I injured myself in the garden, she said if I did so she would immediately serve me notice. Now my only ally is the dog, who is a marmaholic.

A most inspiring story on this subject starts with an intrepid young woman, Lucy Wills (1888-1964). She grew up in a middle class English family during the early decades of the last century, becoming one of the first women to graduate in medicine. In 1928, she left London to work among poor textile workers in Mumbai (then Bombay).  She soon noticed their high mortality, many dying with macrocytic anemia of pregnancy, especially during seasonal shortages of fruit and vegetables.

Since infection as a possible cause of this anemia was ruled out by the failure of arsenic treatment, she wondered if the women had a nutritional deficiency. That would have explained why higher caste women were generally free of the disease.  Since vitamin B12 didn’t help she also ruled out pernicious anemia, turning instead to test if a yeast supplement could reverse the problem in rats fed the same restricted diet. They survived, and the active agent became known as the “Wills factor”. She saved many lives by feeding women Marmite, then the cheapest source of the vitamin, until it was identified as folic acid and synthesized as a nutritional supplement.

Lucy Wills

Since the virtues of Marmite are known globally, I will close this post with a story about Marmageddon in New Zealand.  While visiting the country a few months ago, kiwis begged me, “Got Marmite?” The earthquake that had hit Christchurch the year before had caused catastrophic damage to the cathedral and council buildings, but there was as much anguish about the destruction of the Marmite factory. Grocery store shelves were bare and rare jars of Marmite were being auctioned for much more than ten-fold their normal price. But investors, even those who loathed the stuff, could rub their hands with glee at the prospects for Marmite Futures.


I have no investments in Marmite, apart from jars on the pantry shelf

No person or animal has been harmed by consuming it in this home

Next Post: About Redheads

Cardinal robes

As winter marches towards spring, two male northern cardinals have set up territories in our yard, keeping an eye on their mates but not getting along with each other.  They watch, emblazoned against a blue sky, from a favorite perch in bare trees. Catching sight of each other they ‘see red’, puffing up scarlet robes which get more brilliant as the breeding season approaches.

Why does red stand above all others, sometimes a sign of menace, sometimes a symbol of courage, and often expressing the power of joy and passion?

Cardinal in our yard

Red brake lights, red stop lights, red London buses, red light district, red planet, Redcoats, Red Army, red flags, cardinal bishops, Coca-Cola … the list goes on.  A color so intense it seems to sear the back our brain, where circuits originating in the red cone receptors of the retina are processed in the visual cortex. Would red convey a smaller emotional charge if blood was blue or fire green?

There’s nothing in a color beyond a wavelength – apart from how the brain perceives it. Hot peppers come in green as well as red, and red letter days and red herrings are fairly benign! Most mammals lack the red cone, seeing gray instead, but they are capable of as much passion as any primate or bird that has full color vision.  Bulls charge at a waving ‘gray’ flag.

To ask how a bird gets as hot as a cardinal is like asking for a Just So story – How the leopard got his spots … How the camel got his hump? Well, it’s the diet, dum-dum, because everyone knows, “We are what we eat.”  And looking around the yard, there is ostensible evidence everywhere.  Holly and Nandina bushes tempt hungry birds with dangling crimson berries.  But wait, biologists seldom answer a simple question with a straightforward story. Most of the intensity in these berries is from anthocyanin pigments which are not absorbed intact into the bloodstream. If berries are not wholly responsible, perhaps birds get their color from something else in their diet – like insects.  Errh … not the cactus juice-sucking insects that gave us cochineal for the pantry and for dyeing the tunics of Redcoat officers.

Most old sayings become threadbare in the light of research, and with a few exceptions there is no simple relationship between what we eat and how we look because of the rumbling process of metabolism going on inside.  Otherwise some of us would look like … well, I leave that to your imagination.


What then lends cardinals their color – and to so many wonders in nature, from fall leaves to appetizing vegetables?  Bugs Bunny would say that carrots are a good place to begin nibbling:

“Oh, carrots are divine, you get a dozen for a dime …”

Nearly two hundred years ago, a German student, one Heinrich Wickenroder, extracted from carrot juice a “yellow fatty oil with carotin” which dissolved in ether but not in water.  He won praise from his professors who thought it might fend off gut parasites, which were rampant in those days and still all too common in domesticated animals and wildlife.  Over time, his discovery expanded into a family of related molecules from plants, called carotenoids, including lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene, which is the precursor of vitamin A. If I was asked to score my favorite molecules, carotenoids would be in the top ten beside DNA and chlorophyll.

Carotenoids are needed for photosynthesis, so they are almost ubiquitous in the plant kingdom, from whence we satisfy our own needs.  They prevent blindness, promote fertility, inhibit cancer, block oxidation, boost immunity, and make dandies of our avian friends in the yard.  I love the biological symmetry: carotenoids make plumage conspicuous in birds and give the power of vision so their mates and rivals recognize it and we can enjoy it (in fact, vitamin A is only responsible for the rod cells). Because we can’t make these virtuous molecules in our bodies but have to absorb them from our diet, the food police keep heaping more fruit and veg on our plates.

Northern cardinals obtain their supply from an omnivorous diet of berries, seeds, and insects, while American goldfinches subsist on strictly vegetarian fare.  When Cornell ornithologists reduced red carotenoids in the diet, cardinals grew pale, and goldfinches turned orange when yellow carotenoids were deficient. But changing diets didn’t go as far as switching their colors because the gut is wise to the vagaries of nature (and researchers) by converting one type of molecule to another.  It’s obvious that diet alone can’t explain everything because female cardinals eating the same food are so much drabber than males.  It takes testosterone to make a male hot.

Red grouse are hardly that.  A game bird looking like a large cardinal in the open heather would soon end in a vixen’s den or on a Scottish table. But the males have a small red comb, a token that performs the same service as the cardinal’s feathers.  Since grouse are plagued by roundworms and ticks, ornithologists wondered whether treating the males with anti-helminthic drugs could improve their breeding performance as well as their overall health. They did.  After ridding them of parasites, the birds absorbed more vitamins from their food which, in turn, increased the color intensity of their combs.  The little red flag on their heads was more attractive to the hens, who thought they would make healthier partners.  Female cardinals get the same message. They can’t be hoodwinked by a frail male because carotenoids painting the breasts of males bursting with blushing pride make honest birds of them.

Next Post: A Death Observed

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