In case you didn’t know, VEGEMITE, the spread that is popular in Australia, is a paste made from leftover brewer’s yeast extract that also contains a vegetable extract and spices. But how did this unique food become so popular in only Australia?
The Fred Walker Company (which became part of Kraft Food Company) hired an Australian chemist named Dr. Cyril P. Callister to develop the spread in 1922. It was known as “Pure Vegetable Extract” until The Fred Walker Company held a national competition in Australia to name the spread. Fred Walker’s daughter chose the name VEGEMITE from the pool of entries picked as finalists in the competition. VEGEMITE was in grocery stores by 1923.
Marmite, a spread popular in Britain and also made from brewer’s yeast, was already being used in many Australian households, and Walker’s new product had difficulty taking hold. Fred Walker even changed the name in 1923 from VEGEMITE to “Parwill” to compete with Marmite in order to use the slogan, “Marmite but Parwill.” The change was unsuccessful, however, and Walker later changed the name back to VEGEMITE in 1935.
A few things had to happen for VEGEMITE to become the icon it is in Australia today. In 1925, Walker went into a joint venture with J.L. Kraft & Bros to market processed cheese. Ten years later, he used the popularity of the cheese to promote VEGEMITE. Walker gave away free jars of the spread with the purchase of Kraft Walker Cheese. A limerick competition further improved VEGEMITE sales in 1937, and the British Medical Association endorsed the product in 1939. VEGEMITE also gained popularity because it was associated with being rich in Vitamin B.
When World War II occurred, it forced the rationing of VEGEMITE, and Marmite was no longer being imported. The Australian Armed Forces were buying VEGEMITE in bulk because of its nutritional value for the troops. This reduction helped cement the product’s iconic status to the people of Australia. By the end of the 1940s and into the 1950s and 60s, VEGEMITE was reportedly in 9 out of 10 Australian households.
The VEGEMITE brand returned to full Australian ownership in 2017, when Bega Cheese bought it from Mondelez International, formerly Kraft Foods Inc. About 22 million jars of VEGEMITE are sold every year, and the most common way to eat it is on toast with butter, but there are numerous other uses for the spread that is said to be an acquired taste.
You may not have ever eaten it if you’re not from Australia, but you’ve probably heard the reference “VEGEMITE sandwich” in the song “Down Under” by the Australian band, Men at Work.