Is Unilever using bad science to market Marmite?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

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Is Unilever using bad science to market Marmite?
Unilever has launched its “biggest ever campaign” for the yeast extract spread Marmite, but new research published at the launch has been mocked on Twitter as “egregiously wrong”.

The brand has traditionally been marketed as something consumers “either love or hate”.​ The Marmite Gene Project, part of a new €3.3m (£3m) push across TV, online and social media, now claims to have “conclusively shown that there is a genetic foundation to Marmite taste preference”​.

Genetic testing centre DNAFit, which carried out the research, asked 260 adults to taste a 2g serving of the spread on their tongue for 10 seconds. They were also asked to say whether they loved or hated the product.

Saliva cheek swabs were taken to obtain DNA, which were then analysed to identify single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, or “snips”​) associated with Marmite taste preference.

They found 15 genetic markers for Marmite taste preference, five of which were statistically associated with preference for the spread. “Our research indicates that Marmite taste preference can in large parts be attributed to our genetic blueprint, which shows that each of us is born with a tendency to be either a ‘lover’ or a ‘hater’,”​ said DNAFit’s Thomas Roos.

Consumers were encouraged to buy their own kits through Marmite’s Twitter site, and the story received widespread coverage in the UK mainstream press.

But others mocked the study as ​bone-headed​ pseudo-science. “I’ve just received the dumbest press release of my life,”​ tweeted Michael Marshall, a writer with New Scientist.

“A genome association study like this cannot prove that your genes have an effect on breakfast spread preferences,”​ he noted in a follow-up article. “If the effect exists, such a study can tell you where to find it – but it can also give you meaningless results.”

Indeed, Marshall and others were at pains to point out that environment could play a major (if not the only) part in whether Marmite is liked or not. Parents who like Marmite, for example, will give it to their kids, who also share their SNPs.

DNAFit and Unilever did mention this as a distinct possibility. The paper concluded with: “Overall, we conclude that Marmite taste preference is a complex human trait influenced by multiple genetic markers, as well as the environment.”

That’s a pretty big caveat, but who cares if you grab some headlines and sell some more spread (as well as DNA test kits)?

More interesting perhaps, for those involved in food science, was that the researchers didn’t find an association between the TAS2R38 bitter taste receptor gene and Marmite taste preference.

“If bitter tasting ability has a moderate to large effect on Marmite taste preference (OR>1.5), power calculations indicate that we would have had an 80-85% chance to find common SNPs with true genetic associations to this trait. Thus, our data do not support the hypothesis that the TAS2R38 gene or bitter tasting ability plays a significant role in whether people love or hate Marmite,"​ the researchers noted. 

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