What Is Vegemite? A Brief History of Australia's Favorite Yeast Extract Spread
Ask enough people to name an Australian food and you're bound to hear about Vegemite almost immediately. The thick, dark spread garners strong reactions from nearly everyone who tastes it—both positive and negative. But despite its far-reaching reputation, many people outside the land down under have no idea what it actually is. If you've ever wondered what Vegemite is made of and where it came from, read on for a brief history of this polarizing source of Aussie pride.
What is Vegemite?
Before there was Vegemite (pronounced veh-juh-mite), there was Marmite. This UK favorite traces its origins back to a German scientist named Justus Von Liebig, who came up with a nutritious spread while experimenting with brewer's yeast left over from beer production in the late 19th century. This gloppy byproduct was previously regarded as waste, but advancements in cellular research revealed living, single-celled organisms thriving in the dregs. Yeast is a microscopic fungus that consumes sugars and excretes alcohol, flavor compounds, and carbon dioxide in a process called fermentation, making it an essential ingredient in beer recipes. It's also high in B vitamins, and Von Liebig’s edible spread conveniently harnessed its nutritional content. The concentrated yeast extract was also rich in umami, the “fifth taste” associated with savory foods like meat and soy sauce. (Despite the meaty flavor notes, the spread was 100-percent vegan.)
The wonder food had a lot going for it, but it didn’t reach the public until nearly 30 years after Von Liebig's death. In 1902, the Marmite Food Company was founded in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England, with their own version of the yeast spread leading its product line. (The yeast itself was provided by nearby Bass Brewery.) The jars of thick, dark paste appealed to British palates, and when research shed more light on its nutritional value several years later, Marmite’s popularity exploded.
Britons weren’t the only ones spreading Marmite on their toast at the breakfast table—Australians also fell in love with the stuff in the early 20th century. But when the country was suddenly deprived of the spread due to World War I shipping disruptions, Australian entrepreneur Fred Walker commissioned chemist Cyril Callister to fill the hole in the market. The scientist spent months in the lab converting brewer’s yeast into a tasty and nutritious Marmite alternative for the Fred Walker Company (now the Kraft Food Company). In 1923, five years after the end of the war, he debuted his “Pure Vegetable Extract” to the world.
To drum up publicity for the product, Walker held a contest where members of the public could submit potential names for the spread and the winner would be picked blindly out of a hat by Walker's daughter. The name Vegemite was the lucky draw—at least for a little while.
A jar of Vegemite by any other name ...
By the time Vegemite actually reached the market, Marmite had already returned to Australia and was again the country's preferred brand. A persistent Walker tried to renew interest in his yeasty alternative in 1928 by giving it a new name and slogan that referenced the rivalry between the two spreads. The updated labels read "Parwill," as in “If Marmite, Parwill!” The terrible pun didn't drive the sales the company was hoping for, and the original name was soon reinstated.
Walker's next promotional gamble did pay off, however. Around the time Vegemite got its name back, Walker secured the rights to sell Kraft's processed cheese in Australia. He marketed the cheese and Vegemite together, giving away free jars of his yeast spread with every Kraft product sold as part of a promotion. The tactic worked—Vegemite sales were soon on the upswing, and the company was officially sold to Kraft in 1935. Much like Marmite, Vegemite's status as a health food helped make it a pantry staple. In 1939, it was officially endorsed by the British Medical Association as a healthy source of vitamins and nutrients.
Marmite again vanished from Australia when World War II broke out, so Vegemite was instead packed with soldiers' rations. The brand even adopted the wartime slogan, “Vegemite: Keeping fighting men fighting fit.” The spread has been a symbol of Australian pride ever since.
But despite being forever linked to Australia, Vegemite was technically American-owned as a part of Kraft Foods (and later Mondelez International) from 1935 until 2017, when the Australian dairy company Bega purchased the brand from Mondelez along with most of the conglomerate's Australia and New Zealand grocery and cheese products. The beloved brown spread had finally returned to the one place that seems to truly understand and appreciate it
Vegemite isn't for everybody
It's estimated that nine out of 10 households in Australia have a jar of Vegemite in the pantry. Everywhere else? At best, it's a curiosity and at worst, a punchline. On a trip to Australia in 2011, then-U.S. president Barack Obama took a high-profile jab at the spread by describing it as “a quasi-vegetable-byproduct paste.” That was right after he called it “horrible.” It's also been used as a gag on late-night TV and in viral videos. (The video above, which has more than 7.8 million views, features non-Australian kids being introduced to Vegemite. It goes about as well as you'd expect.)
Australia's unique love of Vegemite may come down to acquired taste. Humans aren't predisposed to like many foods, and they only grow accustomed to them over years of exposure. So while someone who grew up in a house stocked with Vegemite (a.k.a. the average Australian) may crave the stuff, an adult trying it for the first time is more likely to gag at the taste. Because of this, around 98 percent of all the Vegemite produced stays in Australia, with around 2 percent finding its way overseas.
What Is Vegemite Made Of?
The formula of Vegemite is a well-kept secret. The makers of Vegemite won’t say what exactly is in their product, but they do claim that the ingredients list hasn’t changed from Callister’s original creation. Though we don’t know the detailed recipe for Vegemite, we do have a general idea of its main components. In addition to yeast extract, the spread is flavored with salt and celery and onion extracts.
How to Eat Vegemite
The typical Australian way to enjoy Vegemite is with toast or crackers. You can spread it on a single piece of bread or spread it between two slices to make a Vegemite sandwich—as made famous by the Men at Work song “Down Under.” Eating it with something fatty like butter, cheese, avocado, or eggs can help cut its strong, slightly bitter flavor.
Whatever you do, make sure to scrape it in a thin layer onto the vehicle of your choice. Many Vegemite neophytes turn their noses up at the product because they spread it on too thick, which concentrates its bitter qualities. Australians know that such an aggressive taste needs to be enjoyed in moderation.
Where to Find Vegemite
If you can’t find Vegemite in your local supermarket, you can purchase it on Amazon. The yeast extract spread can be bought in packs of three 220-gram jars for $17.50. Individual jars are also available for $9.50 each. Just make sure you have something to spread it on at home before placing your order.