What Is Vegemite Really Made Of?

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So you're in your car, listening to the radio, and you tune in to the oldies station just in item to catch that 80's hit "Down Under" by Australian several-hit wonders Men at Work (brought to you here courtesy of YouTube). When you hear what may be the song's best-known line, "he just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich," you may be wondering –- at least if you are not Australian – WTH 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 product, 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??) is, why on earth would Australians willingly consume such nasty stuff? While no one can answer the second query, we can, at least, delve into the background of this mysterious sandwich spread.

What's in vegemite?

As per the Vegemite website, the primary ingredient in their spread is brewer's yeast. It was created in a laboratory, as so many of the best (and worst) foods are, and was originally marketed as "pure vegetable extract." Kind of a loose definition of the word vegetable as most of us know it, perhaps, but then, you wouldn't really classify it as animal or mineral, either. The manufacturer's son realized they'd need a catchier name, though, so a contest was held and the winning name – Vegemite – is the one the product still bears to this day.

Brewer's yeast, though, is not the sole ingredient in Vegemite. As per the product label, it also incorporates a tasty blend of salt, potassium chloride, barley malt extract, food coloring, sulfur dioxide, vegetable extract, niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and folic acid. So while they're kind of burying the lede here as the all-important ingredient that answers one of our main questions about the product comes so far down the list, at least we now have an answer: Yes, Virginia, Vegemite does contain vegetables. Well, vegetable extract, at least – made from onions and celery. Perhaps not quite enough to justify the name, but then, would "Yeasty Yummers" have gone over any better?

How did vegemite come to be Australia's favorite sandwich spread?

Believe it or not, Australians were already fixated on 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 soldiers' 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 like any given Saturday night ...) Soy sauce, umm, well, they've both got that umami thing going on. And beer is made with brewer's yeast as well, so there could be similarities. But sadness? Perhaps Gordon Ramsay would concur, as he seemed completely grossed out by one TIkToker's vegemite-topped fish and chips. Even the famously diplomatic Barack Obama has had just one word to describe vegemite, as per The Daily Mail, and that word is "horrible."

A Quora discussion on the subject of how best to eat Vegemite (or Marmite) yielded the following advice: "Step 1 – grab Marmite/Vegemite; Step 2 - spread on toast; Step 3 - throw in bin; Step 4 – burn house down," with the caveat that you need not follow the final two steps as long as "you like the taste of pure salt, bitterness and disappointment." Someone else opined that "feeding that crap to someone should be classified as an act of terrorism," while a third suggested, "Rumours are you have to finish a jar of Vegemite during the Australian citizenship test or else you won't be qualified to be Australian." (Were that true, Australia would undoubtedly have an immigrant population no higher than that of North Korea.)

Vegemite has been somewhat controversial in recent years

The Washington Post also brought up the fact that Australian politicians at the time were calling for a ban on vegemite sales due to the fact that the product was being used by some indigenous aboriginal peoples to brew a version of moonshine, kind of reverse-engineering the brewer's yeast back into the booze from whence it came. This ban was never realized, but there have also been problems in Australian prisons with inmates using Vegemite for similar purposes. It seems that it can be used as a key ingredient in the infamous jailhouse hooch known as pruno, although some Australian prisons are no longer serving the stuff for this reason.

Despite such controversies, as Vegemite approaches its 100th birthday, it still reigns, as its manufacturer's website claims, as a product that truly "tastes like Australia." The rest of the world, however, may feel that the Antipodes are more than welcome to keep the stuff.