CLOSE
Graham Denholm/Getty Images
Graham Denholm/Getty Images

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Cost Plus World Market
arrow
Smart Shopping
18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
Cost Plus World Market
Cost Plus World Market

Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

Buy on Amazon.

2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

Buy on Amazon.

3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

Buy on ThinkGeek.

4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

Buy on Amazon.

5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

Buy on Amazon.

6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

Buy on Amazon.

7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
Cost Plus World Market

This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

Buy at Cost Plus World Market.

8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

Buy on Amazon.

9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

Buy on Amazon.

10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

Buy on Amazon.

11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

Buy on Amazon.

12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

Buy on Amazon.

13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

Buy on Amazon.

14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

Buy on Amazon.

15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

Buy on Amazon.

16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

Buy on Amazon.

17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
job secrets
14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
iStock
iStock

Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
iStock

If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

woman styling food
iStock

While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
iStock

Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
NBC

Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
iStock

You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios