Which is better for you, Marmite or peanut butter? It’s a question we’ve all (probably) pondered at some point in our lives – butter knife in hand staring at a fresh slice of toast – but at least now we have some sort of scientific conclusion. A study by the University of York and published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, has established that compared to its nut butter rival, eating Marmite can have a positive effect on the neural responses in the brain.
That’s very interesting, but I hate Marmite
You may quell such strong emotions when you discover what effect it can have on your levels of GABA. No, not the style of early 90s hardcore techno, but a neurotransmitter that inhibits the excitability of neurons in the brain, essentially turning them down in order to regulate the brain’s activity to healthy levels.
Still tastes awful though, doesn’t it…
Ok, maybe salty yeast spread isn’t for everyone, but the heightened levels of GABA in the system do have long-term benefits. Two groups of participants took one teaspoon of each spread every day for a month, and the group treated to (or subjected to depending on your tastes) Marmite showed 30 per cent reduction in the brain’s response to visual stimuli compared to the peanut butter group. The effects also took around eight weeks to wear off after the study ended.
“This is a really promising first example of how dietary interventions can alter cortical processes,” says first author Anika Smith, “and a great starting point for exploring whether a more refined version of this technique could have some medical or therapeutic applications in the future.”
Oh why does it have to be Marmite?
Well right now Marmite is probably the one to spread your bets on given it is fortified in Vitamin B12, which keeps the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy. “We have learned that eating foods high in glutamate and vitamins B12 and B6 can reduce the brain’s response to visual stimuli,” says Dr Daniel Baker, senior author of the paper, in an email. “We are not aware of any other attempts to target this pathway through diet (though several drugs act on the GABA system).”
Of course you could always look elsewhere for other brain beneficial foods. “The classic example of dietary modulation of neurotransmitter levels is eating bananas to increase levels of serotonin (because bananas contain tryptophan which is a serotonin precursor).”
So do the researchers now stick to a strict regime of Marmite for breakfast?
“No,” says Baker. “I had some this morning because it’s the day the study was published and it seemed fitting, but I usually have cereal for breakfast.”
Of course none of this is any help if you want to know why Marmite goes white when you whip it…