vegemite

Aussies and Kiwis (New Zealand locals) may not agree on much, but they can find common ground in their love of Vegemite, a savory yeast extract spread.

Australians and New Zealanders feed this savory spread to their kids nearly from birth. It’s the Down Under equivalent of PB&J. (I can attest. My mom, a native Kiwi, has eaten the, may I say disgusting, stuff her entire life. She regularly munches on toast smeared with a thin layer of Vegemite and melted cheese for breakfast.)

As Americans who haven’t grown up on it, Vegemite can be a bit of an acquired taste. With a savory, salty tang to it, a small dab can go a long way. You might not even be able to—or want to—get past the strong smell. So, how did this, some might say unsavory, substance come to be anyway?

A Bit of History

Vegemite began in 1922 when the Fred Walker Company, which later became the Kraft Food Company, commissioned an Australian chemist to develop a food spread from Vitamin B-rich brewer’s yeast.

Dr. Cyril P. Callister, a notable chemist and food technologist of the era, created the yeasty spread that later became known as Vegemite. Originally it was labeled “Pure Vegetable Extract.”

The spread, which was marketed as a delicious addition to sandwiches and toast and to improve the flavor of gravy, soups and stews, didn’t do well at first. It wasn’t until the company launched a national competition to name the spread, with a monetary prize of 50 pounds, that Vegemite gained more, although not substantial, attention.

The British Marmite, a similar dark brown savory spread, still remained more popular in Australia. Finally, after a limerick promotion in 1937 that included huge prizes, such as Pontiac cars, sales of the paste began to boom. The British Medical Association even endorsed the product in 1939 as a nutritious dietary addition. By 1942 Vegemite was a staple in Australian pantries. Today, more than 22 million jars are sold every year.

What’s in the Stuff?

Vegemite is solely manufactured by Kraft Foods at the Vegemite home factory in Port Melbourne, Australia. The recipe has been largely unchanged since its beginning. Today, the ingredients include:

Yeast extract from Yeast Grown (as Barley), Salt Mineral, Salt 508 Malt Extract (From Barley), Colour 150c, Flavors Niacin, Thiamine, Riboflavin, Folate [Taken from the label of a Vegemite jar]

This spreadable paste is a rich source of B vitamins, which help convert food into energy and help encourage proper functioning of the nervous system, muscles and brain. Vegemite also offers notable amounts of niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and folate. The Kraft Foods website states that Vegemite doesn’t contain artificial flavors, colors or added sugar. However, the ingredients listed on the label include “Colour 150c,” which is a caramel coloring additive, although it may be derived from natural sources.

Keep in mind also that these ingredients aren’t organic. However, as conventional spreads go, Vegemite seems to be less processed and contain far fewer synthetic ingredients than the typical jams, spreads, pastes and other condiments on American grocery shelves.

Speaking of, if you want to give Vegemite a taste, you likely won’t find it on your average grocery store shelf. Check specialty stores or the good ol’ Internet for a jar.

image: attila acs

Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson