Australia’s most popular spread has been on quite a culinary adventure dating back nearly 100 years. We examine the history of Vegemite, a fantastic and ironic local brand.
Difficult Beginnings of Vegemite
Australia’s most popular spreadable paste wasn’t always the most popular. Beginning in 1922, the Fred Walker Company (now known as the Kraft Food Company) employed a young chemist to develop a rich, high-vitamin B spread that would become a healthy staple in everyone’s pantries. Dr. Cyril P Callister, Australia’s leading food technologist during the 1920s and 1930s, made an edible paste out of brewer’s yeast after several months. The Fred Walker Company sponsored a national competition with a prize pool of £50 (equal to $3,527 AUD in 2010) to engage the Australian audience. Although no record of the winner’s name exists, Fred Walker’s daughter drew the winning name, VEGEMITE, from a hat.
However, convincing the public that VEGEMITE spread was a healthier alternative to Marmite, an English spread that had dominated the Australian market for years, proved considerably more difficult than anticipated.
Persistence Pays Off
VEGEMITE, which first appeared on store shelves in 1923, was initially advertised and marketed as ‘excellent on sandwiches and toast, and boosting the flavors of soups, stews, and gravies.’ In order to get Australians to try the new spread, the Fred Walker Company changed the name to ‘Parwill’ in 1928, but after 14 years of perseverance, they reverted it back to VEGEMITE.
It wasn’t until 1937, when a competition with rewards like a Pontiac vehicle encouraged entrants by selling VEGEMITE, that this spread became well known. The VEGEMITE Brand gained an official product endorsement from the British Medical Association in 1939 as a result of this successful advertising, and was thereafter advertised in the British Medical Journal. Because VEGEMITE spread is high in Vitamin B, medical professionals and baby care experts began to prescribe it to their patients as a result of this advertising.
As a result, by 1942, VEGEMITE had become a staple food in every Australian household.
The Heart Grows Fonder in Absence
Because of the nutritional qualities of VEGEMITE, the Armed Forces began to buy it in quantity during World War II as the spread gained popularity across the country. However, due to high demand, the spread was rationed per capita across Australia.
VEGE.MITE had become ingrained in the hearts of Australians by the time the war ended and the baby boom began. As the saying goes, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Happy Little Vegemites
Everyone in Australia is familiar with our country’s renowned, unofficial song, the toe-tapping tune of Happy Little Vegemites. This song began with a trio of lively young people singing it on the radio in 1954, and two years later Kraft Foods adapted it into a TV commercial that you just have to sing along to.
In the 1980s, these legendary commercials were colorized and presented to a new generation of Australians. This song is still in use today; reminding the public of their favorite brand, the commercial was re-released in 2010.
Attempts at Recreation
VEGEMITE’s unique flavor has become a national favorite, and Kraft Foods has attempted to duplicate it in a variety of items. VEGEMITE Singles combined Kraft Singles (cheese) and VEGEMITE in the 1990s to reproduce the iconic VEGEMITE and cheese sandwiches made across the country. However, it was quickly removed from the market. With a softer taste, My First Vegemite, a unique version suitable for children over the age of one year, debuted in 2011, but, like previous attempts, it was quickly pulled from the market.
Cheesybite debuted in 2009, mixing VEGEMIT.E with Kraft cream cheese to create an easy spread with a less salty and milder flavor. Because of the popularity of this cheesy spread, sales have continued to this day. It wasn’t until the controversial Cadbury’s Caramello block with VEGEMI.TE chocolate was released in 2015 that critics ranged from ‘love it’ to ‘needs more salt,’ with some even claiming this chocolate left an unpleasant aftertaste.
Despite repeated attempts, over 22 million jars of VEGEMITE spread are sold each year, and this is without a doubt Australia’s most famous spread, enjoyed by children, teenagers, and adults both in Australia and abroad.