Stories that Aboriginal children were getting drunk on home brew made from Vegemite went global on Monday, especially after the BBC quoted indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion saying the nation’s favourite breakfast spread was “a precursor to misery” in remote communities.
There were claims that it was being made in bathtubs, then mixed with orange juice, and minister Scullion claimed that children in some communities were too hungover to go to school after “all-night benders”.
The Abbott government was looking at restricting the sale of Vegemite in remote communities, reports claimed, with the prime minister intervening, if only to say “the last thing I want to do is to have a Vegemite watch”.
Part of what appears to have fed the story is Queensland Police Union president Ian Leavers saying “in indigenous communities I have seen alcohol brewed from many things such as Vegemite”.
But scientists say it’s “highly unlikely” according to science writer Signe Cane.
She details where the myth is likely to have come from, pointing out that claims about Vegemite being the home brew ingredient of choice in far north Queensland have been around for at least two years, and claims is was used to make booze in prison go as far back as 2007.
Cane believes the misunderstanding derives from the fact that Vegemite is made from brewer’s yeast extract, but as she explains:
Yes, it is made out of spent brewer’s yeast, but the relation to alcohol ends there – if anything, Vegemite (and all other yeast extracts) is what happens after alcohol has been made; it’s well known as a by-product of the beer brewing industry.
In short, the yeast in Vegemite is dead as doornails and broken down into what’s not even a vague semblance of the original fungus. If the yeast is dead, there is no way it can produce alcohol. Because it’s dead. Unless they added some live yeast back into Vegemite, and that yeast somehow magically survived the high-salt environment, the sandwich spread almost certainly can’t metabolise sugar [the process required to produce alcohol].
In short, making sly grog from Vegemite is an urban myth.
You can read more about it on Cane’s blog here.
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