On parade with Marmite

As a child I spent a lot of time with an uncle who, although normally very easy-going, became quite agitated when having to get dressed up for one of my aunt’s many social functions. Above all he hated being inspected by her before they set off. She would fiddle with his tie and flick dog hairs off his jacket all the while complaining about the state of his hands. As his work involved building motor cycles in the local Royal Enfield factory his hands always looked rather grimy and carried a faint smell of machine oil even after a good scrub. He would put up with her fussing for a while before saying, “worse than a Marmite parade”, as he turned away.

I never did ask what he meant by the expression and it continued to puzzle me until recently when I read about what men like him experienced alongside shellfire, sniping and gas attacks during the 1914–18 war. I discovered that while those who served in the trenches of France and Belgium suffered problems such as lice, Weil’s disease and Trench Foot, others who served in tropical regions were faced with the likes of malaria and beriberi.

The term beriberi comes from a Sinhalese word meaning “extreme weakness.” It concerns the lack of thiamine pyrophosphate, the biologically active form of thiamine or vitamin B1, which acts as a coenzyme in carbohydrate metabolism through the decarboxylation of alpha ketoacids. It also plays a part in the formation of glucose by acting as a coenzyme for the transketolase in the pentose monophosphate pathway. In the absence of thiamine, pyruvic acid and lactic acid accumulate in the tissues where they are believed to be responsible for most of the neurological (in dry beriberi) and cardiac (in wet beriberi) manifestations.

The body cannot produce thiamine and can only store a limited amount in tissues. While thiamine occurs widely in food it may be lost in the course of processing, particularly in the milling of grains. Beriberi was a particular problem in those countries where polished white rice was a dietary staple.

Marmite was first produced in 1902 as an offshoot of the brewing industry in Burton-on-Trent. The original recipe included salt, spices and celery but high concentrations of folic acid, vitamin B12, thiamine and riboflavin were added later. It was included in army rations to try to prevent beriberi caused by inadequate levels of thiamine in the diet. The troops were ordered to consume their Marmite regularly whether they liked it or not and inspections were carried out to ensure they obeyed. I think this was the origin of my uncle’s Marmite parade.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, 4 October 2014, Vol 293, No 7830;293(7830):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2014.20066546