11 Facts From Down Under About Vegemite

Graham Denholm/Getty Images
Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Vegemite has a long history of controversy. Made from the yeast extract left over from breweries, the spread’s salty, bitter flavor has been dividing Australians for decades. Whether you’re a hater, a devotee, or a Vegemite virgin, these savory facts will give you newfound appreciation for Australia’s unofficial foodstuff.

1. IT WAS A WARTIME SUBSTITUTE FOR MARMITE.

The yeast spread that would eventually inspire an Australian staple originated in Europe. In the late 19th century, German scientist Justus Von Liebig invented Marmite when he discovered that yeast left over from the beer-making process could be made into an edible snack when concentrated and bottled. The Marmite Food Company was founded in Staffordshire, England in 1902, and soon after the product was shipped around the world. Australians took an especially strong liking to the British import. When supplies were halted by German U-boats attacking merchant ships in World War I, the nation found themselves desperate for a substitute to satisfy their Marmite craving. Australian entrepreneur Fred Walker commissioned a chemist named Cyril Callister to devise an alternative in 1922. After months of perfecting the recipe in the lab, the dark, yeasty paste later known as Vegemite was born.

2. ITS NAME WAS PICKED OUT OF A HAT ...

To drum up publicity around their new product, The Fred Walker Company launched a nationwide competition to name it ahead of its debut. Hundreds of submissions were collected, and Walker’s daughter pulled the winning entry out of a hat. The coiners of the name "Vegemite" were awarded a £50 prize.

3. ... THEN BRIEFLY CHANGED TO A TERRIBLE PUN.

The spread didn’t keep its new moniker for very long. By the time Vegemite hit shelves in June 1923, the war had ended, and Australian’s beloved Marmite was available once again. Consumers were hesitant to give an unfamiliar competitor a shot, so Vegemite sales floundered. In an effort to monopolize on Marmite’s success, The Fred Walker Company changed the name to a cringeworthy pun in 1928. The newly rebranded "Parwill" was meant to play off Marmite’s name. The updated slogan went: "If Marmite, Parwill!" Unsurprisingly, the new strategy didn’t do much to help their image, and the name was eventually switched back.

4. IT GAINED MOMENTUM AS A HEALTH PRODUCT.

By the late 1930s, the brand had finally started to receive some recognition. It was officially endorsed by the British Medical Association in 1939 and advertisements for it began appearing in the British Medical Journal. The product’s high concentration of B vitamins and other nutrients helped Vegemite become a staple in soldiers’ ration packs during World War II. Posters hung up during wartime bore the slogan: “Vegemite: Keeping fighting men fighting fit.” Vegemite’s nutritional benefits were also valued by consumers at home; doctors and even baby care experts were recommending the spread as part of a balanced diet (though many current doctors don’t recommend giving babies Vegemite).

5. THE STARS OF THE CLASSIC JINGLE REUNITED 50 YEARS LATER.

Vegemite had established itself as a staple of Australian pantries by the 1950s. Its status as a national treasure was further solidified in 1954, when the brand released an ad campaign that would be remembered for decades. The infectious jingle, titled "Happy Little Vegemites," was a huge success, and the original radio spot led to a television campaign that lasted through the late 1960s.

A few years ago, the company launched an initiative to reunite the original child stars in honor of the ad’s 50th anniversary. They tracked down the seven surviving cast members, and in 2007 they sat down for the interview. Trisha Cavanagh (the baton-twirling girl in the video above) told the Herald Sun, "It may be just a commercial, but it will never die … I think it will be around long after we're gone." The castmates also shared their favorite ways to eat Vegemite, which included "cheese and Vegemite," "crab Vegemite," and "tomato and Vegemite toast."

6. THE FORMULA IS KEPT SECRET.

Like many iconic food brands, Vegemite keeps their exact recipe a fiercely-guarded secret. (According to its website, the ingredients of vegemite haven't changed since Callister’s originally created the spread in the 1920s.) However, some ingredients are less of a secret than others: We know that seasonings like salt and celery and onion extracts are added to the yeast base to make it more palatable.

7. IT’S AMERICAN-OWNED.

Despite the concoction's Australian roots, the company that owns Vegemite is all-American. Fred Walker collaborated with James L. Kraft to establish Kraft Walker Cheese Co. around the same time Vegemite was invented. Using the success of his processed cheese business to give Vegemite a boost, Kraft and Walker launched a new promotion giving away a free jar of the stuff with every purchase from their brand. In 1935, Vegemite was officially sold to Kraft Foods—now Mondelez—and is still owned by them today.

8. IT WAS THE FIRST ELECTRONICALLY-SCANNED ITEM IN AUSTRALIA.

In 1984, a 66 cent jar of Vegemite became the first product scanned at checkout in Australia at a Woolworths. The historic item is now on display at the chain’s head office in New South Wales.

9. IT’S BANNED FROM SOME AUSTRALIAN JAILS.

In recent decades, Vegemite has been a target of harsh scrutiny for its potentially illicit applications. It was banned from prisons in the Australian state of Victoria in 2007 to prevent inmates from extracting the yeast to make booze. Officials have also tried restricting sales of the spread in remote communities where alcoholism is especially prevalent. The concerns are likely blown out of proportion, considering any yeast in Vegemite is dead by the time it reaches the jar and therefore isn’t great for making moonshine. At best, the Vegemite might serve as a nutrient for naturally occurring yeast and speed up the fermentation process, but even then most scientists are unconvinced.

10. THERE HAVE BEEN SOME UNUSUAL VARIATIONS.

Vegemite’s relationship with Kraft has lead to a few peculiar products over the years. In the 1990s, they combined the spread with their classic cheese slices to make Vegemite Singles. The mash-up was short-lived, but they revisited the idea in 2009 when they combined cheese and Vegemite to create a jarred spread. Vegemite Cheesybite is one offshoot that can still be found on shelves today.

Vegemite’s collaboration with Cadbury was less of a success. In their review of the Vegemite-infused Cadbury Caramello Block released last year, The Guardian described the aftertaste, saying, "It doesn’t resemble the beautiful, tangy, salty gloriousness of Vegemite spread on hot-buttered toast, instead it tastes like licking a plate where Vegemite was smeared, many months ago, then left in the sink to fester."

11. IT’S BEEN USED TO CONDUCT ELECTRICITY.

If you never got around to acquiring a taste for Vegemite, there are other uses for the product that don’t involve eating it. Last year, an Australian chemist used Vegemite to complete a circuit and turn on an LED light. Vegemite’s high concentration of ions and water make it a surprisingly good conductor (this is the same reason you can power a clock with a potato). The experiment was part of a larger project looking to make edible medical sensors that gather data inside the body and dissolve when their job is completed. So next time you rag on Vegemite, remember there’s a chance it could one day help save your life.

May Cause Anal Leakage: The Olestra Fat-Free Snack Controversy of the 1990s

Consumers could go through bags of Frito-Lay's fat-free chips. Then the bag would go right through them.
Consumers could go through bags of Frito-Lay's fat-free chips. Then the bag would go right through them.
John T. Barr, Getty Images

When Procter & Gamble began market-testing a fat-free version of their popular Pringles snack in late 1996, Pringles brand manager Casey Keller called their attempt to revolutionize the food industry with the calorie-conscious chips “the number-one unmet consumer need” of the moment.

The chip, which had zero grams of fat and only half the calories of conventional Pringles, was made possible by Procter & Gamble’s olestra, a synthetic fat molecule marketed under the brand name Olean. Because it was too large to be absorbed by the intestine, it passed through the digestive tract—a little too quickly, as it turned out.

Olestra, which was found in Pringles and later in Frito-Lay products like Ruffles and Doritos, was burdened by a nagging problem. The miraculous fat molecule gave a percentage of consumers stomach cramps, loose bowel movements, and diarrhea. It also led to the coining of phrases not normally associated with snack foods, like “fecal urgency” and “anal leakage.”

A 25-Year-Long Journey

Olestra’s origins date back to 1968, when Procter and Gamble researchers were investigating fats that premature infants might be able to tolerate more easily. Over time, they found that attaching an increased number of fatty acids to the sorbitol molecule rendered the fats unable to pass through the mucus membrane of the intestine and were therefore totally indigestible.

Because sorbitol was expensive, researchers substituted sucrose and combined it with triglycerides. With this “fake” fat derived from cottonseed and soybean oils, they seemed to have discovered the holy grail of satiety: a greasy additive that provided flavor with zero calories, zero fat, and zero cholesterol.

The development process took 15 years. It took another 10 years for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve olestra for the so-called savory food category: potato chips, pretzels, and other salty snacks—but there were a few wrinkles. For one, olestra appeared to affect how the body absorbed vitamins A, E, D, and K. It also impacted dietary carotenoids, which may help the body ward off cancer and heart disease. The FDA insisted snacks made with olestra be supplemented with vitamins in order to offset any imbalance that ingestion might cause. The agency also mandated a package warning about abdominal cramping and loose stools, an observed side effect of olestra consumption.

Procter & Gamble made a minor stir about the label—after all, it can be difficult to market food with a warning that it might give you explosive diarrhea—but was otherwise pleased. After 25 years and an estimated $200 million in development costs, olestra was finally ready for store shelves.

Procter & Gamble started with Pringles, test marketing a fat-free version of the baked chips in Ohio in 1996. As the company was prepared to sell the ingredient to other snack companies, Frito-Lay began experimenting with it in Lay's, Ruffles, Tostitos, and Doritos that same year. Early word was encouraging, and all products went on to a national rollout in 1998.

Something's stirring

For a public weaned on the idea that dietary fats were bad, olestra caused a huge stir. Frito-Lay, which marketed the chips under the brand name Wow!, pushed the idea that the chips had just 75 calories per serving, half the calories of the regular recipe, and no fat instead of the 10 grams typical of chips. That the snacks could conceivably create bathroom emergencies was relegated to late-night talk show jokes. Procter & Gamble largely dismissed the claims, comparing the potential gastrointestinal distress of olestra to eating beans or broccoli.

But broccoli had never been demonstrated to cause an orange-yellow liquid to seep out of one’s rear end. The FDA and Procter & Gamble were inundated with 16,700 complaints from consumers that products made with olestra were giving them problems from flatulence to stained underwear. A meeting of Washington’s Center for Science in the Public Interest, which had criticized Procter & Gamble for hyping olestra, featured video testimony of people afflicted by the molecule. One claimed the cramps of snacking were comparable to the early stages of labor.

Other experiences with olestra were said to include the passing of orange-yellow “globules” of oil as well as difficulty wiping. The Center even shared a study commissioned by Frito-Lay which was meant to be confidential that demonstrated “anal oil leakage” was experienced by 3 to 9 percent of study subjects. “Underwear spotting” was present in 5 percent. A variety of gastrointestinal issues were observed in 7 percent.

The potential for leakage aside, olestra overcame much of its bad publicity. Frito-Lay sold $347 million in Wow! chips in 1998 alone. The fat-free Pringles were good for $100 million that same year. It appeared that consumers were sufficiently enticed by a lower-calorie option that they wanted to see how olestra would affect them first-hand.

High hopes and loose stool

It’s impossible to know what percentage of consumers experienced adverse effects. But it’s not hard to see why it could have proven so problematic. Unlike the practical serving sizes eaten in studies, consumers tend to binge on chips, devouring a bag at a time or in conjunction with other food. While Procter & Gamble admonished that chips were snacks, it was hard to dissuade people from seeing a bag of chips with half the calories and just eating the entire thing. Even Procter & Gamble admitted that gorging could give you loose stools and cramping.

Procter & Gamble had high hopes for olestra, projecting $1 billion in sales in 2000 and eventually an entire line of olestra-infused goods like salad dressings and desserts. But two years after its explosively profitable debut, sales were just half that, and only a few other companies like Utz and Herr’s used olestra in their products. Even after the FDA removed the label warning requirement in 2003, consumers weren’t finding runny stool all that appetizing.

Frito-Lay renamed their Wow! chips to Ruffles Light and Doritos Light in 2004. In 2009, Procter & Gamble made olestra an additive in eco-friendly paints and lubricants. Some foods are still made with olestra, though it’s no longer the industry disruptor that the company had hoped for.

Speaking of its potential in 1998, Procter & Gamble's then-chairman and chief executive John E. Pepper, Jr. believed that olestra could soon take a place of prominence among other Procter & Gamble products, like Pampers diapers. He did not mention whether he expected sales of the former would help sales of the latter.

Restaurants Are Transforming Into Grocery Stores During Coronavirus Shutdowns

Your favorite eatery could soon temporarily become your new local grocery store.
Your favorite eatery could soon temporarily become your new local grocery store.
zlikovec/ iStock via Getty Images

The restaurant landscape has transformed rapidly since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic. While the most common change has been switching to pick-up and delivery only, some businesses have found more creative ways to bring in revenue while meeting the needs of their communities. As CNN reports, some restaurants that have been forced to turn away diners are reopening to sell groceries.

With more people feeding themselves at home and stocking up on food, once-common pantry staples have become harder to find. Everything from flour to peanut butter has disappeared from supermarket shelves. Restaurants, meanwhile, are facing the opposite problem—restrictions placed on gathering in public means much of their inventory is going unsold. Selling raw ingredients directly to consumers is an innovative solution.

The list of restaurants-turned-grocery stores includes major chains like Panera Bread. The fast casual eatery rolled out Panera Grocery on April 6, which allows people to order bread, milk, and produce online or through the company's app. Instead of braving a crowded store to get the items, customers can pick them up at a drive-thru window or request contactless delivery.

Independent restaurants across the country are also experimenting with the new business model. In New York City, Best Pizza now sells pizza packs with uncooked dough, pizza sauce, and housemade mozzarella, while Ends Meat is selling bread, olives, and deli meat for assembling your own sandwiches at home. Don's Diner and Cocktails in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has transformed into a full corner store. In addition to dry pasta and tomato sauce, they also sell toilet paper and cleaning supplies out of their repurposed dining room.

To avoid a trip to the supermarket, reach out to the restaurants in your neighborhood to see if they're selling groceries. When grocery shopping is unavoidable, here are some safety tips to keep in mind.

[h/t CNN]

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