Medical Effects of Vegemite and Marmite

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

(Image credit: AZAdam/Adam)

compiled by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

Marmite, the born-in-Britain foodstuff with a powerful taste and a whiff-of-superhero-comic-book name, is more than just a condiment. Marmite, together with its younger, Australian-born kin Vegemite, is an ongoing biomedical experiment.

Streaky dabs of information appear here and there, spread thin, on the pages of medical journals dating back as far as 1931.

Marmite and Pernicious Anemia
The 1930s were a sort of golden period for Marmite. A steady diet of Marmite reports oozed deliciously from several medical journals. Likely many physicians ingested them whilst munching Marmite on toast.

Dr. Alexander Goodall of the Royal Informary of Edinburgh regaled readers of The Lancet with a case report called “The Treatment of Pernicious Anæmia by Marmite”. Dr. Goodall told how a British Medical Journal article, published the previous year, had inspired him and benefited his patients:

“The Treatment of Pernicious Anæmia by Marmite,” Alexander Goodall, The Lancet, vol. 220, no. 5693, October 8, 1932, pp. 781-782. Dr. Goodall reports:

The publication by Lucy Wills of a series of cases of ‘pernicious anaemia’ of pregnancy and ‘tropical anemia’ successfully treated by Marmite raises many questions of importance.... Since the publication of Wills’s paper I have treated all my maintenance’ cases with Marmite. Without exception these have done well.

More on Marmite and Pernicious Anemia
Two weeks later, also in The Lancet, Stanley Davidson of the University of Aberdeen disagreed.

“Marmite in Pernicious Anemia,” Stanley Davidson, The Lancet, vol. 220, no. 5695, October 22, 1932, pp. 919-920. Dr. Davidson reports:

"It would be very unwise at the present stage,” he wrote, “to suggest that Marmite can replace liver and hog’s stomach preparations.”

Marmite and Sprue and More
Readers of The Lancet also got to learn about “Marmite in Sprue,” “The Treatment by Marmite of Megalocytic Hyperchromic Anemia: Occurring in Idiopathic Steatorrhoea,” and “The Nature of the Hæmopoietic Factor in Marmite.”

“Marmite in Sprue,” Leonard Rogers, The Lancet, vol. 219, no. 5669, April 23, 1932, p. 906.

“The Treatment by Marmite of Megalocytic Hyperchromic Anemia: Occurring in Idiopathic Steatorrhoea (Coeliac Disease),” Janet M. Vaughan and Donald Hunter, The Lancet, vol. 219, no. 5668, April 16, 1932, pp. 829-834.

“The Nature of the Hæmopoietic Factor in Marmite,” Lucy Wills, The Lancet, vol. 221, no. 5729, June 17, 1933, pp. 1283-1286

(Image credit: Maksym Kozlenko)

Vegemite and Paramecia
Vegemite starred quietly in a 1948 monograph that describes how it was used to grow and nurture microbes:

“Studies in the Respiration Of Paramecium caudatum,” Beverley A. Humphrey and George F. Humphrey, Journal of Experimental Biology, 1948, pp. 123-134.

The P. caudatum used in this study was supplied, in admixture with Euglena and Chilomonas, by Prof. Agar of the Department of Zoology, University of Melbourne.... The culture medium consisted of 5 ml. of Osterhout solution (Leslie, 1940) and 5 ml. of 20% Vegemite suspension in 1 1. of distilled water. The Vegemite is a yeast concentrate manufactured by the Kraft-Walker Cheese Co. Pty. Ltd., Australia.... Our experiments showed that Paramecium caudatum survived and divided in Vegemite-Osterhout solution over the range 4.7-8.5.

Detail from the study “Studies in the Respiration Of Paramecium caudatum.”

Humphrey and Humphrey’s Vegemite adventure contributed, they said, to “the slow advance of our knowledge of the nutrition of most types of Protozoa.”

Marmite or Vegemite Allergies Alleged
In a few cases, people thought they saw hints of a dark side to Vegemite and Marmite. A 1985 report in the Medical Journal of Australia told of a 15-year old girl with asthma:

“Vegemite Allergy?” P.P. van Asperen and A. Chong, Medical Journal of Australia, vol. 142, no. 3, February 4, 1985, p. 236. The authors report:

She has noted over the last 2-3 years that ingestion of Vegemite, white wine or beer seems to induce wheezing within a short period of time. The doctors concluded that hers was a “suspicious theory.”

Four years later, Dr. Nigel Hickson of Hove issued a bitter warning:

“An Allergy to Marmite?” Nigel Higson, British Medical Journal, vol. 298, no. 6667, January 21, 1989, p. 190. Dr. Hickson wrote:

Some health visitors advise mothers to put Marmite on their nipples to break the child’s breast feeding habit; in a susceptible child this action might possibly be fatal.

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This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2017 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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