The controversial Marmite ban
by Sejal Sukhadwala | 19 July 2011 | 34 commentsTweet
Denmark is pondering whether to ban the sale of Marmite, causing fans to protest. So why is this popular spread causing such a problem?
Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that Marmite is controversial – and not just for its taste. At the end of May, a spate of stories began to appear in the media declaring that it’s been banned in Denmark.
Marmite is a dark, deeply savoury spread made from yeast extract (a by-product of beer production), manufactured by Unilever in Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire. It is fortified with Niacin (Vitamin B3), Thiamine (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), folic acid and Vitamin B12.
GPs often recommend it for people with vitamin deficiencies, busy lives or special dietary needs. The Danish authorities deem it too rich, however, with too high levels of folic acid. They are concerned that people may exceed their recommended daily intake of vitamins.
Many popular food products fortified with vitamins and minerals have already been banned in Denmark, such as Vegemite, Ovaltine, Horlick’s, Farley’s Rusks, Bovril and some Kellogg’s breakfast cereals. So reports about the Marmite ban didn’t come as a surprise.
Like feelings about the spread itself, the response to the reported ban was extreme. Fans were outraged, threatened to go on riots, and set up numerous groups on Facebook, including one declaring 6 June as ‘Ex-pats Marmite Day’.
Some shops in Denmark became worried about the future of their business, and started a ‘Bring Back Marmite’ campaign. There was talk of smuggling it in from nearby Sweden or Germany. Nutritionists were up in arms.
There were those who went so far as to argue that banning Marmite was a way for the Danish government, worried about immigration levels, to get foreigners to leave. Debates about the future of Danish economy without highly skilled foreign workers began in earnest.
Some even proposed banning Danish bacon, Lego and Sandi Toksvig in retaliation – and only half-jokingly. So the story about how ‘the Danish Marmite ban’ was received by angry consumers became a rather bewildering story in itself.
So has Marmite actually been banned in Denmark?
Technically speaking, no – or at least, not yet. According to the 2004 Danish Order, any food and drink item fortified with vitamins and minerals needs a licence from the Danish Veterinary and Food Association (DVFA) before it can be sold.
Denmark is one of the few EU countries that requires such a licence. While conditions for voluntary fortification (as in the UK) are standardised, there are no Europe-wide regulations governing the amounts of vitamins and minerals that can be added to fortified foods. So EU member states can set their own criteria, resulting in inconsistencies between different countries.
A spokesman for the DVFA said: “We have no record of an application for the sale of the product. So we have neither forbidden nor accepted it.” So until the approval process is completed, Marmite cannot be sold in any shops in Denmark at the present time.
In actual fact, what had happened was that a retailer in Aalborg had been asked to apply for a licence by a local control officer, but decided to stop selling it instead – leading to media and social media frenzy.
The process of approval can take up to six months; so it is possible that when the checks are completed, Marmite could be banned. However, this is not a given, as the Danish authorities assess each product on a case by case basis, and many fortified foods have been given the green light following scientific risk assessment.
Nutritionists argue that as only small amounts of Marmite are eaten, the vitamin levels are not harmful; and in any case our body flushes out excessive quantities. So the risks of overdosing on vitamins are negligible. Nobody has died yet from eating fortified foods in any country in the world.
In my opinion, any kind of ban on fortified foods is illogical because cigarettes and alcohol are not banned, and they are arguably more harmful to health. Wouldn’t the Danish government be patronising the consumer by taking the decision out of their hands? Why not simply include health warnings on fortified food products and let the consumer decide?
So what are your views on the Danish Marmite ‘ban’ and the issue of fortified foods generally? Do foods with added vitamins and minerals belong in supermarkets or pharmacies? Do you buy them? Can people with vitamin deficiencies not take vitamin tablets instead? Shouldn’t processed foods be allowed to retain their original nutritional qualities, so that they don’t have to be fortified in the first place?
Let us know by using the comments box below!