United States Bans Vegemite

Well this IS a curious issue … and I’m not a happy little Vegemite!

America has decided to make its opinions quite clear about Australia’s favourite black breakfast spread, by banning it’s importation into the United States. Now I understand Vegemite is an acquired taste, but we Aussies can’t resist the tasty yeasty properties of beer residue, and this ban is preventing Aussie tourists from sharing this unique condiment with our American mates – not to mention the affect this crackdown is having at the breakfast table of our expatriates.

About Australia, a US based store providing American consumers with traditional products from Down Under, was forced to stop importing Vegemite six months ago, however the product was actually limited to 113gram (4oz) jars in 2005. Expat Daniel Fogarty, now living in Canada, was recently searched for Vegemite while crossing the border on a trip to Montana. Other travellers have had their jars of Vegemite confiscated. This insult on our national iconic symbol is almost as un-Australian as politicians banning the word ‘mate’ in Parliament … oh wait … that did happen.

So what’s the big deal? What did Vegemite do to offend our brothers in arms? After all, it might be a little salty on the palette, but it’s packed full of healthy stuff, in addition to that good ol’ Aussie spirit!

At the bottom of this bizarre prohibition is the US Food and Drugs Administration (of course), who say they disapprove of the addition of folate to anything other than bread or grain products such as flour and pasta. Hey, I don’t know what the FDA have been spreading their Vegemite on either, but spread on bread is what it’s meant for!

Okay, time for the serious stuff. Exactly what is folate and why is it so bad?

Folate is a water-soluble B vitamin found naturally in green vegetables, legumes, liver, and some fruits and nuts – not to mention yeast extracts. It works in conjunction with B12 (also present in Vegemite) to produce the genetic materials for cell growth and reproduction. Folate helps to build proteins and healthy red blood cells, which means it is an important nutrient in the defence against anemia. Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that high folate intake can reduce the risk of certain diseases.

Sounds like pretty good stuff, right? The FDA thinks so too.

In 1998, after several years of deliberation, the FDA ruled on regulations for the mandatory addition of folic acid (the synthetic equivalent of folate) to breads, cereals, and other grain products, to assist in the prevention of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. Nine months after the policy was introduced, incidence of spina bifida was reportedly reduced by 31%. However, it is argued that the supplementation is inadequate and many more cases of birth defect could be avoided with a higher dosage.

Nevertheless, the FDA purports to the theory that too much folate can mask vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly and, they argue, Vegemite contains just too much. Now I’m thinking the FDA hasn’t been reading the nutritional information panel on their jar of Vegemite, which suggests a 5 gram serve for 50% of the recommended dietary intake (RDI) of 200 micrograms of folate per day, or 400 micrograms for women of child bearing age. Not only that, the Institute of Medicine has established a daily upper intake level (UL) of no more than 1000 micrograms of folic acid, so as not to mask symptoms of B12 deficiency … that’s an awful lot of Vegemite … even for an Aussie. Just how much Vegemite is the FDA slapping on their slice of toast?

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