Sue Cane investigates whether the love-it-or-hate-it spread really is suitable for coeliacs – or not...
When I wrote a diary about Marmite for Coeliacs Matter in July 2014 I should have guessed the interest it would create. Marmite is a spread the British love – it's been made in Burton-On-Trent since 1902 and enjoys great allegiance from its fans - but the question of whether or not it's safe for coeliacs has been around since the time of my diagnosis, over 7 years ago.
Much as I loved it, I eventually gave up Marmite because it was making me ill. Nobody could answer my nagging concern about the gluten content of its ingredients. But when Unilever, the manufacturer, finally did divulge its test results, I discovered it contains 60ppm gluten, exactly three times the legal limit for gluten-free food, and began to wonder why it is that most of us still believe it to be gluten free.
It doesn't take long to work out: most people, ironically especially coeliacs, think that Marmite is gluten-free precisely because there is no gluten-containing cereal in the ingredient list. And we're right to be confused: Marmite does contain gluten but, unlike most allergenic foods, you can't tell from the label, because the cereal from which it is ultimately derived – barley – simply isn't listed.
We rely on the law governing food labelling to protect us from allergens, but when you look closely you can see that Marmite slips without trace through the very regulations that are intended to help consumers clearly identify food that will make them ill.
Marmite is made from brewer's yeast, a by-product of the brewing industry. During fermentation in beer making, yeast grows on barley malt and turns the grain's sugars into alcohol. After this is done, the waste yeast is skimmed off and the surplus, containing a residue of barley (and in some cases, wheat too) is sold as brewer's yeast - the basis of the yeast extract from which Marmite is made.
EU labelling legislation is designed to make it easy for consumers to identify allergens in food and it is a requirement that all allergens, such as barley, are declared (1). But, for the purposes of these regulations, micro-organisms – i.e. yeast – that are fed on substrates - i.e. barley – are not considered as derived from them (2). Thus the allergenic cereal on which the yeast has grown does not need to be declared. This is fine in theory except we now know, because Marmite has been tested, that this yeast extract does indeed contain gluten, only there is no provision within the act for it to be declared.
(This case is different from some other types of 'derived ingredients' like dextrose, a glucose syrup derived from wheat, where testing does not discern any carry-over of source ingredients.)
Unilever could choose to use precautionary labelling (3), such as 'may contain', to warn people of Marmite's gluten content, but 'may contain' was really designed to alert consumers to the possibility of contamination (not to the inclusion of an allergenic ingredient) and in any case, 'may contain' does not fall within the scope of the regulations. This effectively means that the FSA has no jurisdiction over this method of disclosure anyway.
A Unilever statement via Marmite's PR reads:
'Marmite hasn't changed at all over the years, we do not add gluten however gluten is in the product as it is a natural product and is contained within the ingredients [sic]. There are 60 ppm (parts per million) which means we can't say it doesn't contain gluten however it is a very low level [sic]. People who have been eating it for years and have had no problems don't need to change anything.'
The time has come for this disingenuous approach to change. Surely Unilever should now, in fairness, warn consumers and state 'Yeast Extract from brewer's yeast made from barley (gluten)'?
In the meantime, at least we know the answer to the question 'Is Marmite safe?' It's way over the 20ppm threshold for gluten free food and as such I don't think it should be considered suitable for coeliacs.
What about other yeast extracts?
It's inevitable that a query now arises about the gluten content of Bovril, Natex and all the other major brands of yeast extract on the market. They're all produced in the same way with various concentrations of brewer's yeast in the final product. Are they safe to eat instead? Nobody knows until their test results are made public, although if you look under FAQ's on Vegemite's website, the manufacturer, Mondelez, states 'it is not gluten-free.'
Testing is the only way we can find out about the potential toxicity of food. 'Toxicity' might sound dramatic, when all we want to know is if we can eat something or not, but gluten IS toxic to coeliacs and we should consume as little of it as we can. Gluten quantification is there to help us keep it to safe levels in our diet.
The setting of the 20ppm gluten-standard in conjunction with a daily limit of 10mg of gluten is thought to protect most people with coeliac disease from mucosal damage (4). It is true that portion size, or how much we eat in the context of a meal, is critical when working out our consumption of gluten-free food, but only if it is food that has already been declared under 20ppm. Abandoning the diet and eating small quantities of ordinary food that contains gluten is not to be recommended. And remember, it's only because of the labelling anomaly that we're even considering here whether it's OK to consume Marmite.
Coeliac UK has now updated its website to reflect the Unilever's test results:
'Yeast extract, usually eaten by consumers as Marmite or Vegemite, has historically been considered safe to include in a gluten-free diet. It is usually only consumed in small quantities so if you have been including yeast extract in your gluten-free diet in the past it is highly unlikely that it will have been harmful.
Yeast extract can be made as a by-product of bread, wine and beer-making. Although the ingredient and manufacturing processes have not changed, recent information received from the makers of Marmite indicates that despite thorough washing, it contains slightly more than the 20ppm gluten standard, now defined by law. We are now in the process of contacting other manufacturers of yeast extract products to identify their suitability for a gluten-free diet. For further information it is advisable to check with individual manufacturer.'
Of course, it could be the case, because most of us do indeed eat only tiny quantities of these high ppm spreads, that a very small amount, and not eaten on a daily basis, might have little effect on someone who is otherwise compliant with a GF diet and whose intake is below the accepted safe limit of 10mg of gluten per day. After all, most of us ingest very small quantities of gluten in our daily life without suffering ill effects. But these are big 'ifs'. My own experience was that eating Marmite was responsible for the return of the symptoms I had previously avoided by adhering to a GF diet, and I suspect that in due course, Coeliac UK will revise their recommendations about its suitability for coeliacs.
Food labelling is our only protection against the inadvertent consumption of gluten in ready-made foods. In particular it helps those who are asymptomatic and therefore at higher risk of dietary non-compliance. As long as I've been avoiding gluten, Marmite has been one of those products with a large question mark attached. Finally that question mark has become a big black cross.
Although we've been looking at Marmite and the loophole in the FSA labelling provisions here, generic yeast extract is used commercially in small quantities (at an average concentration of approximately 1% (5)) in an enormous range of savoury food – indeed its use is almost ubiquitous in everything from crisps to ready meals. These products do not need warnings because the level of gluten involved, whether in a 50g bag of crisps or a 300g ready-meal, is so low. Trying to avoid them unnecessarily can make it almost impossible for coeliacs to purchase convenience food.
Here are two gluten-free yeast extracts which might satisfy those seeking to replace Marmite with a safe alternative.
Meridian's Yeast Extract is tested (at 5ppm) and declared gluten-free.
Essential's Vitam-R Yeast Extract is the only yeast extract whose source is not brewer's yeast. It's derived entirely from yeast grown on sugar beet (and is also made by a different process that doesn't involve heat treatment).
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1 DIRECTIVE 2003/89/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 10 November 2003 amending Directive 2000/13/EC as regards indication of the ingredients present in foodstuffs. (5) (10) (11)
2 FSA. Guidance on Allergen and Miscellaneous Labelling Provisions. (March 2011) 38 :16.
3 FSA. Guidance on Allergen and Miscellaneous Labelling Provisions. (March 2011) 38 :16. Best Practice.
4 Fasano, A. In defense of 20 Parts Per Million. (22 August 2011) University of Maryland School of Medicine Mucosal Biology Research Centre.
5 European Association for Specialty Yeast Products [Accessed 21 Oct 2014]
First published November 2014
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