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

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