What Is Vegemite Really Made Of?

So you're in your car, listening to the radio, and you tune in to an oldies station just in item to catch that '80s hit "Down Under" by Aussie pop stars Men at Work (brought to you again courtesy of YouTube). You hear what may be the song's best-known line, "He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich." If you're not Australian, you may be wondering at this point, what is Vegemite anyway? Is it vegetables, or what?

"Or what" is a lot closer to the truth. While The Journal of Historical Research in Marketing (via Emerald Insight) confirms that Men at Work's pop hit was probably the high point in U.S. awareness of this popular-in-Australia condiment, even then it failed to catch on in the States due to its, er, unique taste. In fact, if you've ever tasted Vegemite, the second thing you may be asking yourself (after what is this stuff?) is, why on earth would Australians willingly consume it?

While no one can answer the second query, we can, at least, set your mind at ease as to the mystery ingredient: according to the Vegemite website, their product is made out of brewer's yeast. 

How did Vegemite come to be?

Believe it or not, Australians were already addicted to a yeast spread called Marmite years before Vegemite was even invented. In fact, BBC News relates that Vegemite was originally developed in 1922 as a local alternative to the British import Marmite in order to make sure that Australians would never again suffer the deprivation they'd endured when WWI German U-boats kept Marmite-bearing ships from reaching the Land Down Under.

While Vegemite didn't catch on right away in Australia, it wasn't due to the taste, but to the competition from the already well-established Marmite. During WWII, however, that all changed — not due to U-boat intervention, as before, but because Vegemite was included in Australian soldier's wartime rations and thus became associated with patriotism. An extremely catchy 1954 radio jingle called "Happy Little Vegemites" furthermore cemented the product's position as Australia's national food by making sure that an entire generation of Australians would not be able to get the product (or its advertising) out of their heads, no matter how hard they tried.

What does Vegemite taste like?

According to a 2015 Washington Post article, a Google search on "Vegemite tastes like" would yield the following top three results: soy sauce, beer, and sadness. (Sounds kind of like an average Saturday night for many of us.) Soy sauce, umm, well, they've both got that umami thing going on. And beer is another product made with brewer's yeast, so there could be similarities. But sadness?

Apart from the obvious commentary on a flavor most non-Australians are less than fond of (including former President Barack Obama, who admitted to finding Vegemite "horrible"), the Post brought up a then-current controversy where several Australian politicians were calling for a ban on Vegemite sales. This was due to the fact that the product was being used by some indigenous tribes to brew a version of moonshine, kind of reverse-engineering Vegemite's brewer's yeast base back into the booze from whence it came.

This ban was never realized, however. As Vegemite approaches its 100th birthday, it still reigns, as its manufacturer's website claims, as the one product that truly "tastes like Australia" — though the rest of the world may say, they're more than welcome to it.