• Vegemite jars on display at the Vegemite factory in Melbourne (AAP)Source: AAP
Scientists say it is highly unlikely that alcohol can be made from Vegemite as media were sent into a frenzy Sunday following reports that Indigenous communities were using the yeast extract to make moonshine.
Andrea Booth

10 Aug 2015 - 4:38 PM  UPDATED 11 Aug 2015 - 9:39 AM

Australian media were sent into a frenzy Sunday following reports that Indigenous communities were making moonshine from the yeast-extract spread.

But is it even possible to make alcohol out of Vegemite?

Probably not, according to biotechnologist Dr Claudia Vickers, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology.

Dr Claudia Vickers told NITV News that converting vegemite to alcohol was, “theoretically plausible but highly unlikely”.

She said that while yeast can be used to make alcohol, yeast grows well within a temperature range of 18-23 degrees Celsius and even around 30 degrees Celsius. “But if you heat it up to temperatures that you would likely need to make Vegemite, that would be very likely to kill the yeast.”

"If you heat it up to temperatures that you need make Vegemite, that would probably be very likely to kill the yeast"

In response to claims that Vegemite may work as a yeast nutrient and help boost yeast growth, Dr Vickers said:

"This is possible, and more plausible than actually sourcing the yeast inoculum from Vegemite, but again, would need to be tested. 

"Again you can buy yeast nutrient in bulk fairly cheaply, I'd be surprised if the Vegemite was cheaper and/or gave a better result."

Comment: Unravelling the story behind #Vegemitegate
It turns out the Federal Government is not seeking to place any restrictions on Vegemite, the salty yeast extract which according to a spokesperson for the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion can be used to make home brew.

Science journalist Signe Cane said she was concerned that media had been careless in their reporting.

”This story is completely bunk," she wrote on her blog Sunday evening. "Why no media outlet has bothered to check whether Vegemite alcohol is physically possible, I don’t know."

Ms Cane broke down why Vegemite was not an effective source of yeast to make alcohol in her post.

"Yeasts, a class of microscopic single-cell fungi, are capable of converting sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol via the biological process of ethanol fermentation. All alcoholic beverages contain ethanol that has been produced with the help of yeast, typically the species Saccharomyces cerevisiae," she wrote.

"Because yeast uses sugars such as glucose, fructose, and others as nutrition, the resulting alcohol is simply metabolic waste, a by-product of the cell division process. Carbon dioxide is the other by-product, and humans have found that useful, too – in bread making. Thus, if you have access to some yeast and sugar [and other ingredients I’m not aware of], it's quite possible to create a homebrew if you know what you're doing."

"Vegemite – and its British relative Marmite, along with various other brands – is a yeast extract product.

"The spread has a strong umami flavour thanks to the presence of glutamic acid, which is released when the yeast cells break down in a process called autolysis, or self-digestion.

"If the yeast is dead, there is no way it can produce alcohol. Because it’s dead"

"It means that the yeast has died, released digestive enzymes, and these enzymes have turned the cell contents into simpler compounds, such as the aforementioned glutamic acid. Once the cell walls are removed via centrifuging, and the whole mixture has been concentrated and flavoured with salt and some secret ingredients, you have yourself an emotionally divisive sandwich spread.

"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, Ms Cane said, 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."

Ms Cane's blog post came in response to media reports that the Australian government had flagged banning Vegemite after a spokesperson said Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion had heard dry Indigenous communities in Australia's Top end had been using it to make alcohol.

Mr Scullion said that such practice was a "precursor to misery".

"Addiction of any type is a concern but communities, especially where alcohol is banned, must work to ensure home brewing of this type does not occur," he said in a statement.

"There was a report in 2010 of a man from Mornington Island having died from drinking a Vegemite-based concoction but we do not have any other solid information"

A spokesperson from the Federal Department of Health on Monday told NITV News that the department had indeed heard a report in 2010 of a man from Mornington Island who had died from drinking a Vegemite-based concoction. "But we do not have any other solid information."

Mr Scullion told NITV News it was a priority of the government to work with communities regarding harmful alcohol use in remote areas.

"It has been especially concerning to see first-hand and talk to communities about the impact of harmful alcohol use in areas where alcohol restrictions are in place," he said. 

Follow Andrea on Twitter @andreasbooth