Vegemite

vegemite

Vegemite [vej-uh-mahyt] is a dark brown Australian food paste made from yeast extract. It is a spread for sandwiches and a filling for pastries. A common method of eating Vegemite is on toasted bread with one layer of butter before spreading a thin layer of Vegemite. It is similar to British, New Zealand and South African Marmite, Australian Promite, Swiss Cenovis and German Hefeextrakt. More recently, other spreads – which are Australian-owned – have come on the market to provide an alternative to the now US-owned product, such as the yeast-based AussieMite.

Vegemite is made from brewers’ yeast extract, a by-product of beer manufacturing, various vegetables, wheat and spice additives. It is salty, slightly bitter and malty, and rich in umami (savory flavor) – similar to beef bouillon. The texture is smooth and the product is a paste. It is not as intensely flavored as British Marmite and it is less sweet than the New Zealand version of Marmite.

In 1919, prior to the introduction of Vegemite, the Sanitarium Health Food Company in New Zealand began manufacturing and shipping to Australia a version of Vegemite’s biggest competitor, Marmite. Vegemite was invented in 1922 by food technologist Cyril P. Callister when, following the disruption of British Marmite imports after World War I, his employer, the Australian company Fred Walker & Co., gave him the task of developing a spread from the used yeast being dumped by breweries. Callister had been hired by the chairman Fred Walker. Vegemite was registered as a trademark in Australia that same year. Callister used autolysis (self-digestion) to break down the yeast cells from waste obtained from the Carlton & United brewery. Concentrating the clear liquid extract and blending with salt and celery and onion extractsformed a sticky black paste.

Following a nationwide competition with a prize of £50 to find a name for the new spread, the name ‘Vegemite’ was selected out of a hat by Fred Walker’s daughter, Sheilah. Vegemite first appeared on the market in 1923 with advertising emphasizing the value of Vegemite to children’s health but failed to sell very well. Faced with growing competition from Marmite, from 1928 to 1935 the product was renamed as ‘Parwill’ to make use of the advertising slogan ‘Marmite but Parwill,’ a convoluted pun on the new name and that of its competitor; ‘If Ma [mother] might… then Pa [father] will.’ This attempt to expand market share was unsuccessful and the name was changed back to Vegemite; but did not recover lost market share.

In 1925, Walker had established the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. as a joint venture company with J.L. Kraft & Bros to market processed cheese and, following the failure of Parwill, in 1935 he used the success of Kraft Walker Cheese to promote Vegemite. In a two-year campaign to promote sales, Vegemite was given away free with Kraft Walker cheese products via coupon redemption and this was followed by poetry competitions with imported American Pontiac cars being offered as prizes. Sales responded and in 1939 Vegemite was officially endorsed by the British Medical Association as a rich source of B vitamins. Rationed in Australia during World War II, Vegemite was included in Australian Army rations and by the late 1940s was used in nine out of ten Australian homes.

Vegemite is produced in Australia at Kraft Foods’ Port Melbourne manufacturing facility which produces more than 22 million jars per year. Virtually unchanged from Callister’s original recipe, Vegemite now far outsells Marmite and other similar spreads in Australia.

Vegemite is one of the world’s richest known sources of B vitamins, specifically thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid, but unlike Marmite and some other yeast extracts, it contains no vitamin B12. The main ingredient of Vegemite is yeast extract, which contains a high concentration of glutamic acid. Vegemite does not contain any fat, added sugar or animal content. Vegemite contains gluten. Vegemite contains 3.45% sodium, which equates to a salt content of approximately 8.6%.

Originally promoted as a healthy food for children, during World War II advertising emphasized its medicinal value: ‘Vegemite fights with the men up north! If you are one of those who don’t need Vegemite medicinally, then thousands of invalids are asking you to deny yourself of it for the time being.’ At the same time ‘Sister MacDonald’ insisted that Vegemite was essential for ‘infant welfare’ in magazines. Later advertisements began to promote the importance of the B complex vitamins to health. Vegemite’s rise to popularity was helped by the marketing campaigns written by J. Walter Thompson advertising that began in 1954, using groups of smiling, attractive healthy children singing a catchy jingle entitled ‘We’re happy little Vegemites.’

During the 1990s, Kraft released a product in Australia known as Vegemite Singles. It combined two of Kraft’s major products into one. The product consisted of Kraft Singles with Vegemite added, thus creating Vegemite-flavored cheese. This extension of the Vegemite product line was an attempt by Kraft to capitalize on the enormous popularity of Vegemite and cheese sandwiches (made by placing a slice of cheese into a Vegemite sandwich). Vegemite Singles were later taken off the market.

In 2009, Kraft released a new version of Vegemite. The formula combines Vegemite and Kraft cream cheese, spreads more easily and has a considerably less salty and milder taste than the original. To coincide with the release of the new recipe, Kraft ran a competition to give the new flavor a name. The new name was announced during the broadcast of the 2009 AFL Grand Final as ‘iSnack 2.0.’ The name was chosen by a panel of marketing and communication experts to appeal to a younger market, capitalizing on the popularity of Apple’s iPod and iPhone. The choice was met with universal criticism and ridicule within Australia. Several critics pointed out that the name is not even original; iSnack is the name of an energy bar manufactured by South African company PVM Products and is the trademark used by Ideal Snacks (iSnack), an American Corn Chip manufacturer.

Two days later, Kraft opened a new poll on its website offering six possible names for the product. These included the three most popular names from the original poll, as well as three others that Kraft considered ‘worthy of consideration based on consumer feedback.’ Voters in the poll were able to indicate a seventh option of not liking any of the suggested names. The poll introduction noted that ‘Cheesymite,’ a name suggested in the original poll, was already trademarked by other organizations. The final name chosen was ‘Vegemite Cheesybite,’ with 10,900 votes. It was later revealed that around 10,000 votes (33%) were registered for the ‘none of the names’ option.

In 2006, an Australian news company reported that Vegemite had been banned in the United States, and that the United States Customs Service had gone so far as to search Australians entering the country for Vegemite because it contains folate, a B vitamin approved as an additive in the U.S. for just a few foods, including breakfast cereals. The story was unfounded and the United States Customs and Border Protection tried to dispel the rumor  stating on its website that ‘there is no known prohibition on the importation of Vegemite.’ The story of the ‘ban’ later took on the status of urban legend.

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