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What is Marmite and Why is this British Savory Spread Such a Cult Favorite?

Martha Stewart Living logo Martha Stewart Living 1/21/2022 Marie Viljoen

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Marmite, a dark brown paste packaged in a cute little black pot with a bright yellow lid and label, is an icon of British food. The salty condiment is so polarizing that the brand's own hashtag is #LoveitHateit. It is not for everyone. If you have never met it, smelled it (that's a make-or-break experience), or tasted it, this dark spread might change your snacking life. What is Marmite, and why does it provoke such strong reactions?

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In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when vitamins were being discovered and defined, scientists in Europe and the United States were learning that brewer's yeast, a worthless but copious sludge left over from beer brewing, had high nutritional values. After a German chemist learned that brewer's yeast could be concentrated by autolysis, Marmite was developed in England in 1902 and marketed as an important supplement in a world facing decades of fallout and food shortages from major wars. It is still made in the brewing town of Burton Upon Trent and is now owned by Unilever. A different Marmite (in different packaging) is made in New Zealand and sold in Australasia.

Marmite and other yeast extracts (like Australian Vegemite) are formed by a process of autolysis: after being heated and salted, enzymes (present in the spent yeast used for beer brewing) break down their own cell contents into amino acids. The liquid contents are then removed (the solid residue is used for animal feed), water is evaporated from the liquid, and that definingly sticky Marmite consistency is reached. The mixture is then blended and flavored with vegetable extracts, and packaged.

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Marmite's fortifying nature is due to its dazzling Vitamin B content (minus any animal products: it is vegan). Vitamins B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B9 (folic acid) and B12 provide a spectrum of benefits available in very small portions. It also contains magnesium and potassium as well as glutamate, an amino acid that acts as a neurotransmitter, sending signals in the brain and throughout the nervous system. It is important for brain development, learning and memory (and too much or too little has adverse effects).

Marmite contains tyramine, which affects blood pressure, and should be avoided by people taking MAOI or MAO-B drugs. It can potentially cause a hypertensive crisis, sometimes as known as "cheese syndrome" when it is caused by food (strong cheeses like parmesan, soy sauce, cured meats, fermented foods, fava beans, and beer can have the same effect). A mild form of the reaction would be a headache.

How to eat Marmite? The classic sandwich of course, spread thinly over sweet butter. Next, on good, toasted sourdough, buttered with butter while hot: the butter melts, the Marmite warms and becomes syrupy, dripping through the holes. Atop cream cheese on crisp rye crackers and under cool slices of cucumber. A delicious low-carb snack is a wedge of crunchy iceberg lettuce, smeared gently with Marmite across one cut side (this snack may also help you sleep, with soporifics in both lettuce and spread). Marmite loves eggs: drop a hot poached egg onto Marmite toast sprinkled with finely grated cheese. Or melt butter in pot, add a teaspoonful of Marmite, swirl together and drizzle across your eight-minute, jammy eggs. Late night snack? Slices of cool cheddar slicked with sticky trails of Marmite. Stir a tablespoonful of Marmite into our favorite cheese sauce recipe, for next-level mac and cheese.

Marmite is for drinking, too. A spoonful stirred into boiling water makes a reviving cup for anyone feeling under the weather. Does your Bloody Mary need a makeover? Dissolve some Marmite in hot water and add it to the tomato juice. Half a teaspoon of Marmite, essentially a concentrated bouillon, also boosts quick pan sauces and slow-cooked stews.

Hungry yet?

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