What is Ovaltine, please?

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Nov. 22 2002 4:18 PM

What Is Ovaltine, Please?

Associated British Foods recently paid over $270 million to purchase the Ovaltine beverage line from Novartis AG, a Swiss conglomerate. What exactly is Ovaltine?

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Familiar to generations of kids as a chocolaty treat, Ovaltine was originally concocted as a nutritional supplement for those in need of more rounded diets. In the late 19th century, Swiss chemist Georg Wander invented a cheap process to harvest malt extract, a syrup derived from malted barley that's commonly used by beer brewers. The barley was first allowed to germinate, or sprout rootlets, in a moist environment. Wander then used a vacuuming process to dehydrate this softened grain, leaving behind a thick, sweet goo. He hoped this syrup, once fortified with goodies like vitamin D and phosphorous, would someday win the world's battle against malnutrition.

It was Georg's son, Albert, who realized that pure malt extract was unlikely to tempt too many tummies, no matter how deprived they were of vitamins and minerals. In 1904, he created Ovomaltine by adding ingredients like sugar, whey, and beet extract to his father's creation. He marketed it to Swiss consumers as an energy booster. An instant hit on ski slopes, where the nutty-tasting brew was served piping hot, Ovomaltine was exported to Britain in 1909 and redubbed Ovaltine. The more beloved cocoa-enriched version came along a few years later.

Ovaltine may not have solved the planet's nutrition woes, but it is a lot more wholesome than such sweet rivals as Yoo-hoo and Nesquik. Four teaspoons of Ovaltine mixed with 8 ounces of skim milk provides a solid helping of vitamins A, C, D, B1, B2, and B6, as well as niacin and, yes, that all-important phosphorous. Low-carb dieters beware: The fat content is zero, but malt is an Atkins' diet no-no.

Though an acquired taste, Ovaltine became popular due to clever marketing campaigns in both Europe and the United States. The brand sponsored radio shows, such as Britain's The Ovaltineys and America's Captain Midnight (the latter of which gave away decoder rings to young listeners). Ovaltine was the official tipple of the 1948 Olympics and was carried up Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. Popular adult lore held that Ovaltine mixed with raw eggs gave a powerful boost to the male libido.

Noticeably showing its age, Ovaltine's sales haven't met expectations for some years. Analysts blame the drink's current reputation as a somnolent for the elderly, many of whom likely grew up downing the stuff in the '30s or '40s.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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