SYDNEY - To millions of Australians who spread it on their toast every morning, Vegemite is virtually a national dish. So when the makers of the pungent brown paste decided to meddle with the ingredients, they exercised extreme caution.
Kraft Foods conducted a survey of more than 300,000 Australians before announcing a new version of the 86-year-old spread. Company executives also trawled internet chat rooms frequented by Vegemite lovers in an effort to discern the exact nature of its appeal.
The new product is much like the original, but smoother. In a sign, perhaps, of more health-conscious times, consumers told Kraft "they wanted a Vegemite that doesn't require combining with butter and one that's easier to spread", according to Simon Talbot, head of corporate affairs. While the revised recipe remains confidential, the extra ingredient is reportedly cream cheese.
Kraft claims the relaunched Vegemite is more versatile than the original and "can be enjoyed at all times of day". It even goes with the traditional Aussie barbecue, claims the company, which has created a marinade recipe that comprises fresh rosemary, honey, wholegrain mustard and Vegemite.
While the attraction of Vegemite and Beer Marinated Steaks may be difficult for outsiders to fathom, Australians consume 22 million jars of the spread every year.
Kraft is calling the latest version "the new Vegemite experience" but has yet to name it. It will ask consumers to come up with a name.
A similar competition yielded the original name when Vegemite was invented in 1922 by food technologist Cyril Percy Callister, using waste yeast from a Melbourne brewery. The Fred Walker Cheese Company, which later went into partnership with Kraft Foods, took out newspaper advertisements offering £50 for the best name for its "New Vegetable Food".
The new, more spreadable product was devised after Kraft spent nine months tinkering with the ingredients. The company also analysed the results of its online survey, concluding, among other things, that most Australians apply Vegemite to their toast in light streaks, rather than slapping it on thickly, or dunking Vegemite soldiers into soft-boiled eggs.
Even once armed with such priceless information, Kraft executives proceeded with care. "With such a well loved brand, we wouldn't create something using the Vegemite name unless we were absolutely sure Australians would love it," said Mr Talbot.