What Is Marmite, and Why Is This Savory British Spread Such a Cult Favorite?

It's a love it or hate it food, but why?

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. Simply put, it's 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. So, what is Marmite, and why does it provoke such strong reactions?

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, or a region that is made up of Australia, New Zealand, and neighboring islands.

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 sticky Marmite consistency is reached. The mixture is then blended and flavored with vegetable extracts, and packaged.

Marmite's fortifying nature is due to its dazzling vitamin B content (minus any animal products—it's 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's important for brain development, learning, and memory (and too much or too little has adverse effects). Marmite also 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, is made with Marmite spread thinly over sweet butter. We like to take a slice of good, toasted sourdough bread, then butter it while hot: the butter melts and the Marmite warms, becoming syrupy, dripping through the holes. Another option is to enjoy Marmite 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). It may surprise you, but Marmite also loves eggs: drop a hot poached egg onto Marmite toast sprinkled with finely grated cheese, or else melt butter in pot, add a teaspoonful of Marmite, swirl together and drizzle across your eight-minute, jammy eggs. Need a late-night snack? Slices of cool cheddar slicked with sticky trails of Marmite can't be beat. We also like to stir a tablespoonful of Marmite into our favorite cheese sauce recipe, then use it 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.

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