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Vegemite is a popular Australian spread eaten in sandwiches, on toast, with savory biscuits, or added to soup. It can also be enjoyed in a sandwich with cheese, tomato, lettuce, honey or peanut butter. Vegemite is a yeast extract, a by-product of beer manufacturing, and looks similar to dark chocolate icing about to be applied to a cake.

It is not sweet though. Rather, it is quite salty, somewhat bitter, and malty, and has been described as tasting like beef broth. Only a thin layer is needed. It is often regarded as an acquired taste. Ingredients are yeast extract, salt, mineral salts 508 and 509, malt extract, natural color 150 and vegetable extract, as well as B vitamins thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.

After a slow start, Vegemite has become an Australian icon. The product was invented in 1922 by Cyril P. Callister, a food technologist with Fred Walker & Company. Imports of Marmite from Britain had been disrupted by World War I and Callister was asked by Walker to come up with a similar product.

At the time, used yeast was being dumped by Australian breweries. The firm obtained a supply of this waste yeast from Melbourne’s Carlton & United brewery. Callister used autolysis, a process involving the destruction of yeast cells and adding salt and various vegetable extracts such as onion and celery. A naming competition with a £50 prize resulted in the name Vegemite being pulled from a hat by Walker’s daughter Sheilah.

The product first appeared on grocers’ shelves in 1923 but sold poorly. In an attempt to boost sales, and with increasing competition from Marmite, Vegemite was renamed Parwill in 1928. This fitted an advertising slogan of “Marmite but Parwill”, a play on the words “Ma might but Pa will”. It didn’t work and the product lost more market share.

Reverting to the Vegemite name in 1935, Walker promoted it via the Kraft Walker Cheese Company he had set up in 1925. Jars of Vegemite were given away with cheese. The product’s popularity increased with the introduction of electric toasters in 1936. A limerick writing contest with prizes including Pontiac cars was launched in 1937 and sales skyrocketed. Doctors were soon recommending Vegemite as nutritious and rich in vitamin B.

By the late 1940s, Disney characters such as Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse were used successfully in Vegemite advertising targeted to the parents of baby boomer children. Sister McDonald, a baby care expert, stated that “Vegemite is most essential”, further boosting sales. The hugely successful “Happy Little Vegemites” campaign was launched in 1954, featuring healthy young children dancing around and singing a jingle which went like this:

“We’re happy little Vegemites

As bright as bright can be.

We all enjoy our Vegemite

for breakfast, lunch and tea.

Our mothers say we’re growing stronger

every single week

because we love our vegemite.

We all adore our Vegemite.

It puts a rose in every cheek.”

Sales continued to grow due to the advertising campaign, and also on the back of a rapid increase in the number of supermarkets, post-war prosperity, and the concept of Australia as “The Lucky Country”. Vegemite was fast becoming an Australian icon.

In the late 1960s, Vegemite advertising was changed to appeal to a wider demographic, including young children, teenagers, and adults of all ages, as a nutritious food for everyone. The emphasis on young consumers returned in the 1970s with the “Pass the Vegemite please Mum” slogan. Prominent Australian identities were used to promote the product in the 1980s, including racing car driver Peter Brock, tennis player Ken Rosewall and actress Helen Morse.

The “Happy Little Vegemites” campaign made a comeback in the late 1980s, sparking a trend in retro advertising. Innovative marketing continued when, in 1994, a bus was made into a toaster on wheels and promoted Vegemite on toast. By 1996, Australians were buying 22 million jars of Vegemite a year. Its icon status was enhanced by clever slogans such as “Vegemite, a part of growing up”.

In early 2007, Kraft undertook to reunite the eight children in the 1950s advertisement in a 50 year reunion campaign. With help from the media, all eight were found and the new campaign was awarded the “Arts, Entertainment & Media Campaign of the Year” at the Asia Pacific PR Awards in late 2007.

The Vegemite name entered popular culture. It was included in the worldwide hit song “Down Under” by Australian band Men at Work in 1982. They sang: “I said, ‘Do you speak-a my language?’ He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.” The song almost became a de facto national anthem at the time. Mention of Vegemite was made in John Williamson’s song “True Blue”.

The comedy theatrical production “The Vegemite Tales” by Australian Melanie Tait has had sell-out seasons in London. Vegemite is even mentioned in Sarah Palin’s book, “Going Rogue: An American Life”. On page 200, she states: “… of goodwill, they presented me with a jar of Vegemite”.

Despite the huge success of Vegemite in Australia, it hasn’t done well overseas, except in New Zealand and to some extent in the United Kingdom. Just one jar in 30 is exported. The product is not well known in the United States, even though it is owned by American company Kraft Foods. It is available at US stores selling imported goods.

Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper stated incorrectly in 2006 that the US had banned Vegemite, a report thought to have been based on an Australian traveler’s story of having to declare food items to US Customs. The paper blamed then president George W. Bush and encouraged readers to email the White House. The US Food and Drug Administration and US Customs and Border Protection made official statements to dispel the rumors.

On a visit to the US in 2011, Australia’s previous prime minister Julia Gillard and President Barack Obama talked about Vegemite at a school after a student asked what it is. Gillard said she loved Vegemite. Obama good-naturedly said: “It’s horrible”. Gillard then described it and Obama paraphrased her by saying: “So it’s like a quasi-vegetable by-product paste that you smear on your toast for breakfast.” He added sarcastically: “Sounds good, doesn’t it?” and laughed.