Some consider it as one of the essential elements of life and love it; others hate it. But is Marmite good for you?
Or whisper: is it one of those “ultra-processed foods” that experts say is linked to obesity and other health problems, including, as the Mail reported a few days ago, an increased risk of early death if you have type 2 diabetes? ?
The cost of Marmite is skyrocketing, a large jar will set you back almost £6 – good news for the manufacturer, Unilever, which has enjoyed a surge in revenue due to price hikes, it was revealed last week.
And many consumers won’t want to give up their favorite spread: not just because of the taste, but because of the ‘contains B vitamins’ boast.
It also provides potassium, and eating potassium-rich foods may be more beneficial for lowering blood pressure than reducing salt intake, especially for women who eat a lot of salt, according to a study published in the European Heart Journal last year.
(Potassium helps relax blood vessel walls and stimulates the body to excrete sodium.)
Marmite falls under the category of ultra-processed foods, or UPF (file image)
This was also the finding of an ongoing research programme, involving 96,000 Zoe app users, led by Professor Tim Spector, an expert in epidemiology and gut health at King’s College London.
Discussing the results, Professor Spector admitted his surprise at the finding that yeast extract (one of the main ingredients in Marmite) topped a list of the highest potassium foods, with 2100mg per 100g (this compares with a banana, traditionally considered one of the best foods rich in potassium, with approximately 358 mg per 100 g).
All of which raises an interesting conundrum: Why does Marmite fall into the ultra-processed food, or UPF, category? These are foods that, generally speaking, come in packages, are subject to industrial processing, and contain ingredients you wouldn’t see in a home kitchen (but more on that definition in a moment).
Marmite is made with processed yeast extract, a byproduct of the brewing industry. It is by no means the most extreme example of UPF – others contain a host of unrecognizable ingredients. But does this matter if a food also provides useful nutrients?
This question is something of a nutritional hot potato. While some experts point to research linking increased UPF intake to a growing list of modern diseases, others say the research fails to take into account that people who tend to eat the most UPF may have other factors as well. that contribute to poor health, such as low income.
Another bone of contention is the definition of UPF: some say it’s so broad that it wrongly denigrates foods that may have some nutritional benefit, like a few slices of grocery store whole wheat bread (provides fiber), baked beans (also a source of fiber and that counts as one of your five a day, because of the beans and tomato) and, love it or hate it, Marmite, which, according to its manufacturer, provides 76 percent of your vitamin B12 needs in one serving of 8 g (approximately half a tablespoon).
Baked beans are also a source of fiber and count as one of your five a day, due to the beans and tomato (stock image)
The starting point of what constitutes a UPF is the NOVA classification, the original definition established by scientists in Brazil in 2009.
NOVA defines UPF as industrially manufactured products that are made primarily from substances extracted from food (such as oils, fats, sugar, starch, and protein), or derived from food constituents (such as hydrogenated fats or modified starch), and with little , if any raw ingredients.
(Here’s the definition the UN uses: A leading expert Good Health spoke to dismissed a popular definition of UPF as foods with ‘five or more ingredients,’ as it’s the nature of the ingredients, not the number, that is significant). As it stands, a cup of instant vegetable soup, for example, has the same rating as a frozen donut.
This kind of anomaly led the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), an official body that provides “independent scientific advice” to the UK government, to say last month that the NOVA UPF classification groups foods “with different nutritional attributes”.
“People assume that nutritional content is taken into account when food is determined to be ultra-processed, and it’s not,” says Professor Judy Buttriss, chair of the board of trustees of the Academy of Nutritional Sciences and former CEO. from the British Nutrition Foundation.
She thinks the NOVA UPF rating is ‘unhelpful, attracting nutritionally important foods, as well as those high in sugar, saturated fat or salt.
“In a sense, it implies that a healthy food that has been processed in a factory is automatically different, nutritionally speaking, from the same food that I prepare in my kitchen.”
Plus, he argues, some UPFs have valuable nutritional benefits. ‘Have some low-sugar, high-fiber breakfast cereals, like whole wheat flakes. These would be classified as UPF, despite contributing important dietary fiber and other nutrients.
“And what’s important when you eliminate something from your diet is what you replace it with: Giving your child a high-fiber cereal, which is technically a UPF, is likely to be a more nutritious start to the day than alternatives like a home-made sweet muffin.” home,” adds Professor Buttriss. Also, products like Marmite may not be all bad, as it provides “a wide range of B vitamins such as B1, B2, B3, folic acid and B12, but is high in salt .’ — salt does not count as a ‘oops’ ingredient.
This view was reflected in a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in June, which found that it was perfectly possible to create a week’s worth of 2,000-calorie-per-day menus that would fit a “healthy dietary pattern,” with NOVA-UPF defined as they represent more than 80 percent of the intake.
It wasn’t perfect, the US-based authors said, mainly because it had “insufficient amounts of whole grains” and “excess sodium,” but the menu provided adequate amounts of “all macro and micronutrients except vitamin D, vitamin E and choline’.
But other experts, including Dr Kiara CM Chang, a researcher at Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, say we shouldn’t forget that UPFs are ‘industrial products’, made ‘through the breakdown of food into nutrients , often by chemically modifying them, and recombining them so that little of the original food remains in a UPF product’.
The definition of UPF: Some say it’s so broad that it wrongly vilifies foods that may have some nutritional benefit, like a few slices of supermarket whole-wheat bread (which provides fiber) (stock image)
Dr. Chang, who earlier this year published research on a possible link between UPFs and cancer, argues that “UPFs are designed to displace all other minimally processed foods and freshly cooked meals in which largely based on our traditional dietary pattern.”
Plus, he says, “UPFs are cheap and convenient—some people may perceive this as a good thing, but UPFs can be competitively priced due to the low-cost (industrially modified) ingredients with which they’re produced.”
If there’s an argument about the definition itself, the UPF classification has helped focus research on the adverse effects of these highly processed foods, suggests Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at City University London. “Having that broad classification has led to a large number of studies that have found positive correlations between UPF consumption and public health problems,” he tells Good Health.
Certainly, the studies are piling up. Research published in The Lancet in March, involving more than 400,000 people, found that replacing just 10 percent UPF or processed foods with fewer processed foods reduced the risk of several cancers.
And a pivotal 2019 study, published in the BMJ and based on data from 105,000 participants, found that a 10% increase in UPF intake was associated with a 12% increase in cardiovascular disease risk.
It’s not clear how UPFs can have these effects: that work is ongoing; One line of research is looking at whether emulsifiers (which help combine ingredients) or other components of UPFs harm the microbiome, the community of microbes that live in the gut and play key roles in many areas of health.
Meanwhile, the UPF debate has become “a very heated environment,” as Gunter Kuhnle, professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, puts it. His take is that UPF “has become a scary term and people feel bad about eating UPF food and not having time to cook from scratch every day, but that’s not realistic for everyone.”
He believes that the term UPF creates confusion and consumer guilt. ‘For anyone who wants to do research, UPF is a useful term. But, in general, its definition is too broad,’ he says.
‘If I use gravy granules to thicken my gravy, does that make my gravy and homemade roast dinner UPF?’
Dr. Chang agrees that more research is needed “to understand whether some UPFs are better than others and the underlying mechanisms that link UPFs to poor health outcome.” But he adds: “It is important that we are aware of the health risks and that we reduce the intake of UPF as much as possible.”
She advises checking the ingredient list. ‘If it includes food additives, or anything we’re not familiar with or commonly used in home cooking (eg, flavor enhancers, high fructose corn syrup), it indicates the product is UPF.’
Professor Buttriss suggests that rather than focus on processing, ‘a better way to get an idea of how to choose a healthy diet is to look at the traffic light food label, which (albeit flawed) can give you an immediate idea if a food is high in salt, fat or sugar.
The choice is yours.