Friday, August 31, 2012

Marmite: the latest superfood?

Marmite -- and a similar Australian product -- Vegemite -- is a complete mystery to Americans, who generally find it revolting.  But in much of the British Commonwealth it has a huge and dedicated following.  I enjoy the stuff myself.  I always have a large jar of Vegemite in the fridge.  That's almost a patriotic duty in Australia.  And it has always been clear that it has some useful nutrients in it. I doubt that the concentration of niacin is high enough for relevance to the mouse study  mentioned below, however

Five months ago, crisis struck in New Zealand. Earthquake damage to a factory in Christchurch halted production of a staple foodstuff, crippling supply chains nationwide. Supermarket shelves were stripped bare and store cupboards emptied. Consumers started panic buying, hoarding secret supplies and auctioning half-full containers online for extortionate amounts.

They called it “Marmageddon”. The foodstuff? Marmite. That sticky, gloopy, salty spread, made from yeast extract. It’s so popular on the other side of the world that when Sanitarium, its main manufacturer in New Zealand, shut down, the prime minister appeared on television urging the public to stay calm. Now, Marmite could become just as in demand in Britain, after scientists labelled it the latest “superfood”, capable of helping our bodies fight off life-threatening infections.

According to research in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, high doses of niacin (or vitamin B3), one of the main ingredients in Marmite, help boost the body’s defences against staphylococcus bacteria. In tests, concentrated niacin – which produces neutrophils, a white blood cell that fights bacteria – increased our immune system’s ability to kill different strains of the bugs by up to 1,000 times. This could mark a turning point in the battle against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, such as MRSA, the deadly strain that poses a threat in hospitals.

As the saying goes, you either love Marmite or you hate it. On one side are devoted fans who worship “black gold” and would pour it on their cornflakes if they could. On the other are those who hate its yeasty, bitter tang. I’m one of the latter: for me, Marmite has the taste of stale, acrid sardines and the texture of cold treacle. They say the best things for you often taste the worst – such as cabbage, lentils and green tea – but I’d need a lot more convincing before spreading Marmite on my toast.

This isn’t the first time it has been billed as a superfood. First produced in Burton-on-Trent in Staffordshire in 1902, Marmite contains concentrated brewer’s yeast, salt, spices and celery. Due to its high nutritional value, it was part of soldiers’ ration packs during the First World War, and in the Thirties, English scientist Lucy Wills found that the folic acid in Marmite could be used to treat anaemia. Its high vitamin B content also reportedly makes the spread an effective mosquito repellent.

“Marmite helps my pregnant clients get over morning sickness and it’s great for elderly people who have lost their sense of taste,” explains nutritionist Melanie Brown. “I would recommend it to vegetarians, who miss out on vitamin B12, and children who don’t eat much wholegrain bread.”

But not everyone agrees. Concerns have been raised over the high salt content of Marmite (11g per 100g), which led the local council in Ceredigion, Wales, to ban it in primary schools in 2008. More recently, the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration declared Marmite illegal because of its large quantities of additives – it hasn’t been sold in Denmark since May last year.

So before you start lathering yourself in the sticky spread, be warned: indeed, scientists from Oregon State University, who carried out the latest research, have urged people not to take high doses without medical supervision. Our recommended daily intake of niacin is 17mg (13mg for women), and excessive quantities can cause skin flushes and liver damage.

For all those Marmite obsessives out there, the experts recommend a spoonful at a time. “A thin layer is all you need, not piled on your toast like chocolate spread,” says Brown. “A little of what you love won’t do you any harm.”


Eating nuts in pregnancy 'reduces chance of childhood allergy'

Finally the word is getting out

Mothers-to-be should eat nuts because doing so reduces the chances of their children developing allergies, new research has found.
The study adds to evidence that most women should not fear eating nuts in pregnancy, or while breast feeding.

Children of women who eat peanuts and other nuts during pregnancy are a third less likely to suffer from asthma by the age of seven, compared to those whose mothers avoid them, researchers discovered.

For years pregnant women were advised against eating nuts of any kind, due to concerns that they could increase the risk of allergies in their offspring.

But in 2009, the Food Standards Agency revised its advice, stating there was “no clear evidence that eating or not eating peanuts during pregnancy, breastfeeding or early childhood has any effect on the chances of a child developing a peanut allergy”.

Now Danish researchers have gone a step further - finding that eating nuts while expecting has a protective effect on babies.

British experts said they hoped the “robust” study would help discredit the myth that foods containing nuts were somehow intrinsically dangerous for most children.

The new study looked at more than 60,000 mothers and their children, following them from early pregnancy until the children were seven.

Nut eating during pregnancy reduced the chance of a child being classes as asthmatic at 18 months by about a quarter, and a third at seven years.

Writing in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Ekaterina Maslova and colleagues from the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, said: “We found that maternal peanut and tree nut intake one or more times per week during pregnancy decreases the risk of allergic disease in childhood. These results do not support avoidance of nuts during pregnancy.”

Colin Michie, chairman of nutrition at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, hoped women would take note of the findings, which mirrored others showing early exposure to nuts was beneficial for the developing immune system.

He said a rash of studies in the 1980s, that purported to find evidence of a link between nut eating during pregnancy and allergic response, had in fact been found to be weak.

Unfortunately public health officials had leapt on these and others, and advised against eating nuts. By invoking the ‘precautionary principle’ they had unwittingly done more harm than good, he said.

He went on: “Recent studies such as this robust research show the truth of granny’s wisdom, that a little bit of everything tends to be good for you.

“If your body has experienced something before, it’s not going to think that it’s an enemy and come out fighting against it, which is what happens with an allergic response.

“Scientifically speaking, if you have antigens that are present when you are building up your immune repertoire as a foetus and infant, you are less likely to regard something as foreign or dangerous when you encounter large quantities of it.”

This school of thought is exactly the same as that in the hygiene hypothesis, which contends that growing up in a home that is too clean is bad for a child, as it prevents exposure to bugs that stimulate the immune system.

Dr Michie cautioned that, while it was now largely accepted that most pregnant women and young children should not restrict their diets for fear of allergies, there were still clinical exceptions.

Women who had a “dreadful family history of allergy” to nuts should still avoid them, he said, while those unsure should consult their doctors.

Michael Walker, a food chemist, said two studies, called EAT and LEAP, were currently ongoing to determine if early introduction of potentially allergenic foods could help prevent food allergies.


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