11 Facts From Down Under About Vegemite

Graham Denholm/Getty Images
Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Vegemite has a long history of controversy. Made from the yeast extract left over from breweries, the spread’s salty, bitter flavor has been dividing Australians for decades. Whether you’re a hater, a devotee, or a Vegemite virgin, these savory facts will give you newfound appreciation for Australia’s unofficial foodstuff.

1. IT WAS A WARTIME SUBSTITUTE FOR MARMITE.

The yeast spread that would eventually inspire an Australian staple originated in Europe. In the late 19th century, German scientist Justus Von Liebig invented Marmite when he discovered that yeast left over from the beer-making process could be made into an edible snack when concentrated and bottled. The Marmite Food Company was founded in Staffordshire, England in 1902, and soon after the product was shipped around the world. Australians took an especially strong liking to the British import. When supplies were halted by German U-boats attacking merchant ships in World War I, the nation found themselves desperate for a substitute to satisfy their Marmite craving. Australian entrepreneur Fred Walker commissioned a chemist named Cyril Callister to devise an alternative in 1922. After months of perfecting the recipe in the lab, the dark, yeasty paste later known as Vegemite was born.

2. ITS NAME WAS PICKED OUT OF A HAT ...

To drum up publicity around their new product, The Fred Walker Company launched a nationwide competition to name it ahead of its debut. Hundreds of submissions were collected, and Walker’s daughter pulled the winning entry out of a hat. The coiners of the name "Vegemite" were awarded a £50 prize.

3. ... THEN BRIEFLY CHANGED TO A TERRIBLE PUN.

The spread didn’t keep its new moniker for very long. By the time Vegemite hit shelves in June 1923, the war had ended, and Australian’s beloved Marmite was available once again. Consumers were hesitant to give an unfamiliar competitor a shot, so Vegemite sales floundered. In an effort to monopolize on Marmite’s success, The Fred Walker Company changed the name to a cringeworthy pun in 1928. The newly rebranded "Parwill" was meant to play off Marmite’s name. The updated slogan went: "If Marmite, Parwill!" Unsurprisingly, the new strategy didn’t do much to help their image, and the name was eventually switched back.

4. IT GAINED MOMENTUM AS A HEALTH PRODUCT.

By the late 1930s, the brand had finally started to receive some recognition. It was officially endorsed by the British Medical Association in 1939 and advertisements for it began appearing in the British Medical Journal. The product’s high concentration of B vitamins and other nutrients helped Vegemite become a staple in soldiers’ ration packs during World War II. Posters hung up during wartime bore the slogan: “Vegemite: Keeping fighting men fighting fit.” Vegemite’s nutritional benefits were also valued by consumers at home; doctors and even baby care experts were recommending the spread as part of a balanced diet (though many current doctors don’t recommend giving babies Vegemite).

5. THE STARS OF THE CLASSIC JINGLE REUNITED 50 YEARS LATER.

Vegemite had established itself as a staple of Australian pantries by the 1950s. Its status as a national treasure was further solidified in 1954, when the brand released an ad campaign that would be remembered for decades. The infectious jingle, titled "Happy Little Vegemites," was a huge success, and the original radio spot led to a television campaign that lasted through the late 1960s.

A few years ago, the company launched an initiative to reunite the original child stars in honor of the ad’s 50th anniversary. They tracked down the seven surviving cast members, and in 2007 they sat down for the interview. Trisha Cavanagh (the baton-twirling girl in the video above) told the Herald Sun, "It may be just a commercial, but it will never die … I think it will be around long after we're gone." The castmates also shared their favorite ways to eat Vegemite, which included "cheese and Vegemite," "crab Vegemite," and "tomato and Vegemite toast."

6. THE FORMULA IS KEPT SECRET.

Like many iconic food brands, Vegemite keeps their exact recipe a fiercely-guarded secret. (According to its website, the ingredients of vegemite haven't changed since Callister’s originally created the spread in the 1920s.) However, some ingredients are less of a secret than others: We know that seasonings like salt and celery and onion extracts are added to the yeast base to make it more palatable.

7. IT’S AMERICAN-OWNED.

Despite the concoction's Australian roots, the company that owns Vegemite is all-American. Fred Walker collaborated with James L. Kraft to establish Kraft Walker Cheese Co. around the same time Vegemite was invented. Using the success of his processed cheese business to give Vegemite a boost, Kraft and Walker launched a new promotion giving away a free jar of the stuff with every purchase from their brand. In 1935, Vegemite was officially sold to Kraft Foods—now Mondelez—and is still owned by them today.

8. IT WAS THE FIRST ELECTRONICALLY-SCANNED ITEM IN AUSTRALIA.

In 1984, a 66 cent jar of Vegemite became the first product scanned at checkout in Australia at a Woolworths. The historic item is now on display at the chain’s head office in New South Wales.

9. IT’S BANNED FROM SOME AUSTRALIAN JAILS.

In recent decades, Vegemite has been a target of harsh scrutiny for its potentially illicit applications. It was banned from prisons in the Australian state of Victoria in 2007 to prevent inmates from extracting the yeast to make booze. Officials have also tried restricting sales of the spread in remote communities where alcoholism is especially prevalent. The concerns are likely blown out of proportion, considering any yeast in Vegemite is dead by the time it reaches the jar and therefore isn’t great for making moonshine. At best, the Vegemite might serve as a nutrient for naturally occurring yeast and speed up the fermentation process, but even then most scientists are unconvinced.

10. THERE HAVE BEEN SOME UNUSUAL VARIATIONS.

Vegemite’s relationship with Kraft has lead to a few peculiar products over the years. In the 1990s, they combined the spread with their classic cheese slices to make Vegemite Singles. The mash-up was short-lived, but they revisited the idea in 2009 when they combined cheese and Vegemite to create a jarred spread. Vegemite Cheesybite is one offshoot that can still be found on shelves today.

Vegemite’s collaboration with Cadbury was less of a success. In their review of the Vegemite-infused Cadbury Caramello Block released last year, The Guardian described the aftertaste, saying, "It doesn’t resemble the beautiful, tangy, salty gloriousness of Vegemite spread on hot-buttered toast, instead it tastes like licking a plate where Vegemite was smeared, many months ago, then left in the sink to fester."

11. IT’S BEEN USED TO CONDUCT ELECTRICITY.

If you never got around to acquiring a taste for Vegemite, there are other uses for the product that don’t involve eating it. Last year, an Australian chemist used Vegemite to complete a circuit and turn on an LED light. Vegemite’s high concentration of ions and water make it a surprisingly good conductor (this is the same reason you can power a clock with a potato). The experiment was part of a larger project looking to make edible medical sensors that gather data inside the body and dissolve when their job is completed. So next time you rag on Vegemite, remember there’s a chance it could one day help save your life.

14 Secrets of McDonald's Employees

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

While there’s virtually no end to the number of fast food options for people seeking a quick meal, none have entered the public consciousness quite like McDonald’s. Originally a barbecue shop with a limited menu when it was founded by brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald in the 1940s, the Golden Arches have grown into a franchised behemoth with more than 36,000 locations worldwide.

Staffing those busy kitchens and registers are nearly 2 million McDonald's employees. To get a better idea of what many consider to be the most popular entry-level job in the nation—staff members on the floor make an average of $9 an hour—we asked several workers to share details of their experiences with errant ice cream machines, drive-through protocols, and special requests. Here’s what they had to say about life behind the counter.

1. McDonald's employees can't always deliver fast food all that fast.

While McDonald’s and other fast-service restaurants pride themselves on getting customers on their way, some menu items just don’t lend themselves to record service times. According to Bob, an assistant store manager at a McDonald’s in the Midwest, pies take an average of 10 to 12 minutes to prepare; grilled chicken, 10 minutes; and biscuits for Egg McMuffins, eight to 10 minutes. In the mood for something light, like a grilled chicken and salad? That will take a few minutes, too. Bob says salads are pre-made with lettuce but still need to have chicken and other ingredients added.

The labor-intensive nature of assembling ingredients is part of why the chain has more recently shied away from menu items with too many ingredients. “We are trained to go as fast down the line as we can, and if we have to stop to make something that has 10 ingredients, it tends to slow things down,” Bob tells Mental Floss. “Corporate has realized this and has taken many of these items off in recent years, [like] McWraps, Clubhouse, more recently the Smokehouse and mushroom and Swiss and moved to items that can go a lot quicker.”

2. McDonald's workers wish you’d stop asking for fries without salt.

A serving of McDonald's French fries is pictured
Joerg Koch, AFP/Getty Images

A common “trick” for customers seeking fresh fries is to ask for them without salt. The idea is that fries that have been under a heating lamp will already be salted and that the employee in the kitchen will need to put down a new batch in the fryer. This does work, but customers can also just ask for fresh fries. It’s less of a hassle and may even save employees some discomfort.

“People can ask for fresh fries and it's actually way easier to do fresh fries rather than no-salt fries,” Andy, an employee who’s worked at three different McDonald’s locations in the Midwest, tells Mental Floss. “For those, we have to pour the fries onto a tray from the fryer so they don't come in contact with salt. It can get awkward sometimes getting everything into position, especially if you have a lot of people working in close proximity and it's busy, so I've had some scalded hands a couple of times trying to get fries out in a timely way.”

3. McDonald's workers have to pay careful attention to the order of ingredients.

McDonald’s is pretty specific about how their burgers and other items are supposed to be assembled, with layers—meat, cheese, sauce—arranged in a specific order. If they mess it up, customers can notice. “In some cases it has a big impact,” Sam, a department manager and nine-year veteran of the restaurant in Canada, tells Mental Floss. “Like placing the cheese between the patties with a McDouble. If they don’t put the cheese between the patties, the cheese won’t melt.”

4. There’s a reason McDonald’s employees ask you to park at the drive-through.

A McDonald's customer pulls up to the drive-thru window
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

After ordering at the drive-through window, you may be slightly puzzled when a cashier asks you to pull into one of the designated parking spots. That’s because employees are measured on how quickly they process cars at the drive-through. If your order is taking a long time to prepare, they’ll take you out of the queue to keep the line moving. “My store has sensors in the drive-through that actually tell us exactly how long you are at each spot in the drive-through,” Bob says. “We get measured based on something we call OEPE. Order end, present end. [That measures] from the second that your tires move from the speaker until your back tires pass over the sensor on the present window. My store is expected to be under two minutes.” If an order will take longer than that, you'll be asked to park.

5. The McDonald's drive-through employees can hear everything going on in your car.

While the quality of the speakers at a drive-through window can vary, it’s best to assume employees inside the restaurant can hear everything happening in your car even before you place an order. “The speaker is activated by the metal in the car, so as soon as you drive up, the speaker turns on in our headset,” Andy says. “We can hear everything, and I do mean everything. Loud music, yelling at your kids to shut up, etc.”

6. The employees at McDonald’s like their regulars.

Customers eat inside of a McDonald's with an order of French fries in the foreground
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

With hot coffee, plenty of tables, Wi-Fi, and newspapers, McDonald’s can wind up being a popular hang-out for repeat customers. “[We have] a ton of regulars who come into my store,” Bob says. “I'd say at least 75 percent of my daily customers know us all by name and we know them all, too. It makes it nice and makes the service feel a lot more personal when a customer can walk into my location, and we can look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey Mark! Getting the usual today?’ and we've already started making his coffee exactly how he takes it.”

7. McDonald’s staff get prank calls.

Unless they’re trying to cater an event, customers usually don’t have any reason to phone a McDonald’s. When the phone rings, employees brace themselves. In addition to sometimes being asked a legitimate question like when the store closes, Sam says his store gets a lot of prank calls. “Sometimes it’s people asking about directions to Wendy’s,” he says. “A lot of inappropriate ones. Most are pretty lame.”

8. For a McDonald’s worker, the ice cream machine is like automated stress.

A McDonald's customer is handed an ice cream cone at the drive-thru window
iStock/jax10289

The internet is full of stories of frustrated McDonald’s customers who believe the chain’s ice cream machines are always inoperable. That’s not entirely true, but the machine does experience a lot of downtime. According to Bob, that’s because it’s always in need of maintenance. “The thing is, it is a very sensitive machine,” he says. “It's not made to be making 50 cones in a row, or 10 shakes at a time. It takes time for the mix to freeze to a proper consistency. It also requires a daily heat mode, [where] the whole machine heats up to about 130 degrees or so. The heat mode typically takes about four hours to complete, so you try to schedule it during the slowest time.” Stores also need to take the machine entirely apart every one to two weeks to clean it thoroughly.

Bob adds that the machine’s O-rings can crack or tear, rendering the unit inoperable. Seasoned workers can tell if a unit is faulty by the consistency of the shakes or ice cream coming out, and sometimes by the noises it makes.

9. McDonald's employees don't mind if you order a grilled cheese.

Contrary to rumor, there’s no “secret menu” at McDonald’s. But that doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes snag something not listed on the board. Andy says a lot of people order a grilled cheese sandwich. “I've made many a grilled cheese before,” he says. But it’s not without consequences. “Sometimes it can get a bit risky doing it because the bun toaster wasn't designed to make grilled cheeses so sometimes you get some burnt buns or cheese or the cheese sticks inside and it slows down the other buns from getting out on time so that causes more burnt buns.”

Another common request is for customers to ask for a McDouble dressed as a Big Mac, with added Big Mac sauce and shredded lettuce. “I think [it’s] a way more practical way to eat a Big Mac since there's less bun in the way, and it's also way cheaper even if you do get charged for Mac sauce.”

10. McDonald’s workers recommend always checking your order.

A McDonald's employee serves an order
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Nothing stings worse than the revelation that an employee has forgotten part of your food order. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because the employees are being lazy or inattentive. According to Bob, it’s simply due to the volume of customers a typical location has to process in a given day. “We are human,” he says. “Mistakes do happen. We always feel terrible when they do but when we serve 1000-plus people a day, it's bound to happen.”

Bob recommends checking your bag before leaving the restaurant and not taking it personally if there’s an issue. “Be nice to us if you have a problem,” he says. “It's a huge difference between coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I seem to be missing a fry from my bag,’ and ‘You bastards didn't give me my fries!’” If you want to check your bag at the drive-through, though, he recommends trying to pull ahead so cars behind you can move forward.

11. McDonald's employees don't recommend the grilled chicken.

If a menu item isn’t all that popular, it can wind up experiencing a low rate of turnover. Of all the food at McDonald’s, the most neglected might be the grilled chicken. Because it doesn't move quickly, workers find that it can turn unappetizing in a hurry. “That stuff has a supposed shelf life of 60 minutes in the heated cabinet, but it dries out so quickly that even if it's within an acceptable time frame, it looks like burnt rubber, and probably tastes like it, too,” Andy says.

12. Golden Arches employees aren’t crazy about Happy Meal collectors.

A McDonald's Happy Meal is pictured
David Morris, Getty Images

Happy Meals are boxed combos that come with a toy inside. Usually, it’s tied into some kind of movie promotion. That means both Happy Meal collectors and fans of a given entertainment property can swarm stores looking for the product. “The biggest pain involving the Happy Meals is the people who collect them,” Bob says. “I personally hate trying to dig through the toys looking for one specific one. We usually only have one to three toys on hand. It's especially a pain in the butt during big toys events such as the Avengers one we just had. There was like 26 different toys, and some customers get really mad when you don't have the one that they want.”

And no, employees don’t usually take home leftover toys. They’ve saved for future use as a substitute in case a location runs out of toys for their current promotion.

13. McDonald's employees can’t mess with Monopoly.

The McDonald’s Monopoly promotion has been a perennial success for the chain, with game pieces affixed to drink cups and fry containers. But if you think employees spend their spare time peeling the pieces off cups looking for prizes, think again. Following a widely-publicized scandal in 2000 that saw an employee of the company that printed the pieces intercepting them for his own gain, the chain has pretty strict rules about the promotion. “Monopoly pieces and things like them get sent back to corporate,” Bob says. “We aren't allowed to touch them, open them, or redeem them as employees.”

14. One McDonald's worker admits there have been sign mishaps.

A McDonald's sign is pictured
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Many McDonald’s locations sport signs under the arches advertising specials or promotions. Some are analog, with letters that need to be mounted and replaced. Others have LED screens. Either way, there can be mistakes. “I've never seen anyone mess around with the letters,” Andy says. “But I do remember one time we were serving the Angus Burgers and the ‘G’ fell off of the word ‘Angus.’ Good times.”

The Reason Why It's Technically Against State Rules to Sell LaCroix in Massachusetts

Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

No one is quite certain what goes into LaCroix (“La-croy”), the carbonated water that’s become a popular alternative to soft drinks. The zero-calorie beverage comes in several distinctive fruit flavors that the drink’s parent company, National Beverage, has described as being derived from “natural essence oils.” That highly secretive process is believed to be the result of heating fruits and vegetables, then making a concentrate out of the vapor.

To try and crack the mystery, Consumer Reports recently approached officials in Massachusetts with a public records request for documentation relating to LaCroix. Massachusetts is one of the few states requiring manufacturers of carbonated water to obtain a permit and submit water quality tests to sell their product.

The verdict? Consumer Reports still isn’t quite sure what goes into LaCroix. But it might be technically against state regulations to sell it in Massachusetts. That’s because the state has no records on file for the mystery refreshment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health could not find a permit for LaCroix, and there were no water quality test results on hand, either. Without those documents, the drink should technically not be for sale in the state. After noticing the oversight, Massachusetts sent a request to National Beverage for the necessary information. If the company fails to comply, the state could end up fining them or banning the sale of the drink. A spokesperson for National Beverage told Consumer Reports the company intended to comply with the request.

Why does the state need any information at all? Thanks to some bureaucratic quibbling, carbonated water products are treated differently than bottled water by regulatory agencies. The Food and Drug Administration considers carbonated beverages like seltzer and flavored sparkling water to fall under the heading of soft drinks. While the FDA mandates certain manufacturing standards for those drinks, it doesn’t apply the same rules as it does for bottled water, which is expected to adhere to strict rules about contaminants and quality testing. That leaves certain states like Massachusetts to conduct their own quality assessments.

There’s no guarantee that such testing will divulge LaCroix’s secret to their flavoring process, which is likely to remain a mystery.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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