Last month Vegemite celebrated yet another birthday, and it got me thinking about the history of this divisive spread.
Like pineapple pizza and coriander, Vegemite has the ability to destroy friendships. You can love or hate it, but you can’t deny that it’s likely to be found in most Australian pantries. Derived from yeast, its strong, salty, bitter, umami flavour splits opinions all over the globe.
While the ingredients are kept a secret, they have remained unchanged since 1923—almost 100 years. Vegemite contains B vitamins, like thiamin B1, riboflavin B2, niacin B3 and folate, which are good for brain function, energy release and fighting fatigue. The spread is also super salty, with each 5g serving of Vegemite containing as much as 165mg of sodium. Other versions of Vegemite include gluten-free, reduced salt, and Cheesybite, with the spread inspiring meat pie, gin, chocolate, ice-cream, chips and popcorn.
Image Source: Archie Rose
The History of Vegemite
Despite the spread’s Australian roots, Vegemite is owned by an American company.
In 1922, the Fred Walker Company, which later became the Kraft Food Company, hired a young chemist named Dr Cyril P Callister to create a spread from brewer’s yeast. After months of testing, he came up with the divisive paste, which was labelled ‘Pure Vegetable Extract’.
In 1923, a national competition to choose the name delivered the infamous Vegemite.
In 1928, Fred Walker attempted to boost bad sales of the product by changing its name to ‘Parwill’, but was unsuccessful and reverted back. While the ‘30s and ‘40s saw dramatic changes in the jar’s appearance—delivering multi-purpose jars, different sizes, and reusable plastic beakers—the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s saw a multitude of branding changes.
Image Credit: Vegemite Heritage Products & Packaging Timeline
The ‘80s saw Vegemite make history when it became the first item to ever be scanned at checkout, and then in the ‘90s we were graced with the handy plastic travel tube and traded the jar’s metal lid to the yellow tamper-evident plastic lid we see today.
Image Credit: Wikipedia—Different Vegemite jars at National Museum of Australia
Over the years there have been a number of strange variations, including the Vegemite Single. Although they weren’t particularly successful, the idea was revisited when cheese and Vegemite were again combined to deliver ‘Vegemite Cheesybite’.
Vegemite’s latest collaboration with Cadbury was much less successful, with The Guardian describing it as an old taste, and not the pleasant kind: ‘Once the chocolate has evaporated off the tongue and down the throat, a curious taste remains. [It] tastes like licking a plate where Vegemite was smeared, many months ago, then left in the sink to fester’.
Not exactly a rave review.
Image source: Goodfood.com
Who’s a Happy Vegemite?
In 2014, Roy Morgan research revealed that Vegemite is overwhelmingly popular among Australian-born individuals, although it’s rather popular among New Zealanders as well.
From September 2013 to September 2014, 39 per cent of the population aged 14 and above ate Vegemite (or similar spreads) at least once in an average week.
Of the 7.5 million people who eat Vegemite, Marmite or Promite in an average week, 85 per cent were born in Australia. Meanwhile, 43 per cent of people born in New Zealand eat the yeast-based spread in an average week.
Image Source: Roy Morgan
Banned in Victorian Jails
In 2007, Vegemite was taken off the menu in Victorian jails as there were fears that the spread was being used to make booze; Due to its high yeast content, Vegemite can be refined to brew alcohol.
While authorities first clamped down on Vegemite in the ‘90s, there were still concerns that the “home-brew” was being made inside prisons, with The Department of Justice advising that prisoners were extracting the yeast by melting Vegemite, and were then using the yeast to ferment sugar or carbohydrates into alcohol.
A Dynamite Food
In 2015, Marc in het Panhuis, a professor at the University of Wollongong, used Vegemite to conduct electricity. Professor in het Panhuis designed a breadboard, which was used as the construction base of electronic circuit prototypes, and printed some Vegemite onto sliced bread.
We Love Our Vegemite
Today, over 22 million jars of Vegemite are sold every year. Although the world is constantly evolving, Vegemite is a surprising constant.
Due to its nutritional value, Vegemite was bought in bulk by the Armed Forces during World War II. It was so popular that Walker’s company had to ration the spread on a per capita basis just to meet demand! To this day, Vegemite remains a staple in army ration packs and is well and truly cemented into Australia’s history.
If you’re a Vegemite virgin and you’re mildly intrigued, here’s Hugh Jackman with a run-down.