We didn’t always know as much about nutrition as we do today. This seems like an obvious statement to make, but consider protein. Most of us know, without being told, that protein cannot be compared to a vitamin or other micro-nutrient. If there are vitamins in a plant, you can actually get some of those vitamins by making a tea out of the plant. You are, in effect, making an extract, and you have extracted some of the soluble chemical components of the plants, including micro-nutrients like vitamins.
So what if I told you you could get the “protein power” of beef by making an extract of beef? You’d know immediately that I was off my rocker. Protein doesn’t work that way and you know that in order to get the full nutrition of beef, you have to eat the beef. Well, we didn’t always know this. There was a time when “beef extracts” were all the rage, in fact.
In 1847, German chemist Justus von Liebig declared that if you made a beef broth from meat and bones and then concentrated it, the resulting “extract” was just as nutritious as the beef itself. A company called Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company was eventually started, by another fellow, to sell the extracts. Many products followed.
One of the most successful, which became very popular in Britain, was Bovril, started in 1886 by John Lawson Johnston, who had a contract with the French army to supply preserved beef products. He initially called his product Johnston’s Fluid Beef.
Johnston got the name of his product from the genitive form of the Latin word for cow, bull, or ox, “bovis” and the fictional word “vril” which he borrowed from a book called The Coming Master Race, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
Unlike Liebig’s products, Bovril was, according to Johnston, a liquid from squeezed beef. He claimed it was fifty times more nourishing than Liebig’s Extract of Meat.
Beef Extracts Had Very Little Nutritional Value
Meat extracts actually contained little food value, if any. The were primarily composed of mineral salts from the meat and almost no protein. Like any broth, they would have been good for a person who wasn’t feeling well. Bovril’s “meat squeezing” method may have gotten some of the actual muscle fiber into the extract, but this would have made little difference.
Bovril Sold Through Clever Advertising, Much Like Patent-Medicine
Yes, despite the almost complete lack of food-value, Bovril’s advertising was clever enough to make the product synonymous with the soldier, the adventurer, and with the British Empire in general. A hot cup of Bovril was famously sipped by Captain Scott and Earnest Shackleton when during their journey to the South Pole.
The product was advertised in many different ways, including as a dietetic and as a patent medicine. While it claims to be a food it was also a restorative ad tonic. It even claimed to repel the influenza virus and to prevent colds. At one time, Bovril was served at soda fountains as a “bracing drink” right along-side typical soda offerings.
Bovril has survived into the twenty-first century and is today owned by Unilever who also sells a number of Bovril bouillon products under the Knorr brand. It is now also available as a chicken extract. Although I have not seen the product mentioned on the Bovril website, there has also been (and perhaps still is), a Bovril yeast extract. At one time, around 2004, during a beef shortage, Bovril replaced beef entirely with yeast. Bovril is, indeed, used as a spread, similar to Marmite and Vegemite, or mixed with hot water to make a drink.
Despite the popularity and longevity of Bovril, the name is also used as a general synonym for bullshit. As in “a load of Bovril.”
Examples of other beef extract brands are Armour’s Extract of Beef, and Cudahy’s “Rex” Brand Beef Extract. These types of products were also known as ‘beef tea.’ Today’s beef bouillon cubes or powder are very similar products.
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