A guide to the Anglo-Danish Marmite war

Nothing stirs the blood of the British like a nice slapfight over European regulation, and this goes double when food is involved. The UK press has found its latest excuse for tut-tutting and finger-waggling in the unlikeliest of places: at the bottom of the squat, distinctive little jar in which the vile breakfast spread Marmite is sold. This week, English-language journals in Denmark reported that the Scandinavian kingdom’s food regulator was having the dark brown yeast extract cleared from the shelves of shops which serve Brit expatriates.

The British reared up as one, displaying a spirit of indignant unity. “What have the Danes ever done for global cuisine?” thundered the Belfast Telegraph, breaking Godwin’s Law into splinters over its knurled Ultonian knee. (Unfortunately, a good answer might be “Not given it Marmite, at any rate.”) Fans of the quasi-foodstuff gathered on Facebook to form a “Marmite army”. Social campaigners used the ban to call attention to dubious patches in Denmark’s record on human rights and environmentalism.

It’s all good for a laugh, but the slightly overwhelmed Danish Veterinary and Food Administration hastened to point out an awkward fact: the country hasn’t technically banned Marmite. It’s being taken off the market because Denmark has a rule, introduced in 2004, that requires foods artificially fortified with extra vitamins and minerals to be approved in advance before they can be sold. Apparently scientists there were concerned that certain Anglo-Saxon breakfast cereals contained potentially harmful quantities of otherwise healthy (nay, essential) additives.

Marmite’s status as a “fortified food” has apparently only just been noticed, and the DVFA says that “it has not received an application for marketing in Denmark of Marmite or similar products with added vitamins or minerals.” A glance at the DVFA’s procedure for obtaining approval to market these foods reveals why brand owner Unilever might not be in such a hurry to file. (And it also reveals that free-trade fanatics like me should probably rein in their admiration for the EU’s trade barriers just a little.) The agency not only requires compliance with EU-wide regulations, but insists that each product pass an “individual risk assessment” performed using a made-in-Denmark scientific procedure.

In general, as its global leadership on the trans fats front suggests, Denmark seems to be pursuing a regulatory line that supports a trendy Pollanist preference for “real” food over industrial products. Leaving aside questions of libertarian and public-health merit, the conflict could not be better designed to exasperate the British. Even at the level of the corner shop, British cuisine has undergone an astonishing transformation in recent years. But like the British character itself, Brit cooking still bears lash-marks of wartime austerity; the British, though perhaps only subconsciously now, recognize otherwise-unfoodlike war foods like Bovril, Ribena, and Marmite as tokens of resistance.

There may be no reason Denmark should entertain such idiosyncrasies within its borders, but there is certainly one staggering irony created by the spectacle of zealous nutritionists banning Marmite. The brown goo, it turns out, played a critical role in the discovery and isolation of Vitamin B9, or folic acid. B9 is now understood to be pivotal to foetal development and maternal health, a truth first gleaned by English pathologist Lucy Wills when she fed Marmite to anaemic pregnant women in Bombay. Considering the incalculable benefits of this experiment to later generations of mothers around the world, perhaps scientists should consider giving the nasty stuff a free pass?