Vegemite is one of the most iconic Australian foods. It is a dark brown spread that is made from recycled leftovers of brewer’s yeast extract, with other spice and vegetable additives. It was first developed by Melbournian Cyril Callister in 1922. The brand was owned by Kraft Foods Inc. until it was acquired by Bega Cheese in 2017 for $460 million. It is a staple of many Australian childhoods, being a favourite healthy sandwich spread by parents from many backgrounds, due in no small part to the fact it is vegan, halal, and kosher. It is most often compared to British Marmite in texture and flavour.
Callister was given instruction by his employer Fred Walker & co to develop a local alternative to British Marmite due to the disruption of imports from the UK following WW1. The purpose of the spread was to find a way to repurpose the yeast being dumped by Australian breweries.
The ‘Vegemite’ brand name was selected after a competition was held to name the spread. It first appeared on shelves in 1923, and advertising emphasised the fact it was healthy for children’s sandwiches. It initially did not sell very well and failed to gain significant market share.
When the Kraft Walker Cheese Co. was established, in 1935 Vegemite was given away free with processed cheese products. It got a boost in sales when it was endorsed by the British Medical Association as a good source of vitamin B. It became a signature Australian product when it was included in food rations for the Australian army.
In 1984 Vegemite became the first Australian product to be scanned at a supermarket checkout. It was also produced in New Zealand until 2006.
Vegemite has a unique history, but there is no doubt about its iconic status.