Vegemite in the spotlight

At it again, are they? That is public health scientists trying to find correlations between individual food items and a positive or negative health impact. Often negative effects unless the research is sponsored by the food manufacturing company.

In this case we don’t know as the research doesn’t seem to be published yet, but the findings were anyway released to the press. And to be fair they got a lot of publicity, at least in Australia, so good on them.

We are talking about yeast-based spreads.


Vegemite is the yeast-based spread of choice in Australia. It is a thick, black food spread made from leftover brewers’ yeast extract, thus rich in B vitamins. It is supplemented with various vegetables and spices to make it more appetising. It was developed in Melbourne, Victoria and has been around commercially since 1923. It is salty, slightly bitter, malty with a taste of beef bouillon. Vegemite is similar to the British, New Zealand and South African Marmite, the German Vitam-R and the Swiss Cenovis. As it is so popular in Australia there are several competing products like Promite, MightyMite, AussieMite and OzEmite.

A market survey from 2014 found that an astonishing 7,550,000 Australians ate one of the iconic yeast-based spreads once a week.

And it might be good for you

Now new research has found beneficial health effects in people who eat the vitamin B-containing spreads.

But there are several caveats. The study involved only 520 people split across three countries: Australia, New Zealand and the UK. It was conducted over the internet with the normal vagaries of such studies. The survey participants were asked how often they consumed yeast-based spreads, which products, and how long they’ve eaten them for.

Importantly, the survey also asked participants about their dietary and lifestyle habits as well as their current mental and emotional state, information not easy to capture accurately.

And the press release didn’t mention how the detailed consumption information was handled in relation to the beneficial effects.

But here is the interesting part.


Anyway, believe it or not, people who ate yeast-based spreads expressed lower levels of anxiety and stress compared to those who ate none, and even more astonishingly those who consumed spreads containing B12 were even less stressed and anxious than those who used the other brands.

As each spread varied in levels of B vitamins – including B1, B2, B3, B9 and B12 – it is important to note the finding that those containing B12, like Marmite, MightyMite, AussieMite and the newer salt-reduced Vegemite, but not the original Vegemite, were most effective.

Is this a joke or what?

Well, even the scientists advised that the survey results do not prove that the spread improved mental health as it may be something else going on in the lives of the survey participants.

So true.

They certainly stressed that they would like to investigate their findings further by carrying out randomised control trials with yeast spreads to see if they can improve depression and anxiety in people.

Not complete pie in the sky science

Actually there is some basis for the hypothesis proposed by the scientists. B vitamins are essential in keeping our bodies energised and in regulating the nervous system. A previous Australian study was suggestive of significant decreases in the experience of workplace stress after 90 day supplementation with a B multivitamin.

After individual differences in personality and work demands were statistically controlled, the vitamin B treatment groups reported significantly lower personal strain and a reduction in confusion and depressed/dejected mood, but this did not cover all mood swings.

And there are a few other studies with similar results.

So what can we learn from the findings?


It is clear that yeast extracts contain some of the world’s richest sources of B vitamins. And it is also clear that B vitamins are essential in assisting some of our important bodily functions.

Even so, I have to say that I prefer not to belong to the “happy little Vegemite” group, as the advertising jingle promotes, as I cannot stand the taste.

And there are many other sources of B vitamins. They can be found naturally in animal products including fish, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy, as well as whole grains, walnuts, soy and rice milk.



Stress and fast food a bad combination

Stress and fast food a dangerous combination (Photo: colros)

Stress and fast food a dangerous combination (Photo: colros)

If you are chronically stressed you should avoid fast food. Maybe easier said than done since fast food might be the only meal you have time for. What a conundrum. But new research has found that you have to choose between the two if you want to keep your current waistline (or of course refrain from fast food anyway). So either calm down and relax or make time for the healthy food.

This is the conclusion of a study by scientists at the University of California San Francisco. They were the first to demonstrate that highly stressed people who eat a lot of high-fat, high-sugar food are more prone to health risks than low-stress people who eat the same amount of unhealthy food. “A calorie is a calorie” seems to be the wrong assumption as they showed that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress. They suggest that there could be a stress response that works through diet that could be similar to what we see in animals, where fat cells grow faster in response to junk food when the body is chronically stressed. The stress-junk food pathway has been well mapped out with rodents and primates, and this study is the first to suggest the same pathways may be at work in chronically stressed humans.

The study looked at a group of 61 disease-free women; 33 were chronically stressed women caring for a spouse or parent with dementia, and 28 were women with low stress. Over the course of a year, the women reported their consumption of high sugar, high fat foods. The chronically stressed women didn’t report eating more high sugar, high fat foods than the low stressed women. However, they did have higher levels of stress-related biomarkers.

The participants’ waistlines, fat distribution, using ultrasound scans to assess deep abdominal fat deposits, and insulin resistance, one of the core drivers of obesity and diabetes, were followed. And you guessed it: more frequent high-fat, high-sugar consumption significantly predicted a larger waistline, more truncal fat, and more insulin resistance, but only among the group of women exposed to chronic stress.

So diet appears to be a critical variable that can either amplify or protect against the metabolic effects of stress, but the exact details of how much it takes is still to be figured out.

Note that males might not come off scot-free just because the study involved only females. And stress is not the short-term adrenalin rush you get when you are trying to get to the airport in time or give a presentation in front of a large audience. It is living under sustained chronic stress.

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