In 1961 a 22-year-old Italian Calisto Tanzi inherited his father's business selling Parma ham. He decided to expand the business into the dairy sector and he built a small pasteurising plant in the town of Collecchio under the name Parmalat. The company expanded quickly in Italy being led by an aggressive advertising policy. In 1966 Parmalat began producing UHT milk with a shelf life of six months without the need for refrigeration. The company boomed and international expansion began with a sales push into Brazil in 1974. The following year Parmalat sponsored the World Cup skiing competition in Val Gardena. The following year the company decided to switch to Formula 1 racing and began an association with Niki Lauda.

The company diversified into cheese and desserts and in 1978, to support the international sales drive, became the title sponsors of the Brabham F1 team. Rapid growth continued in the 1980s as the brand became better known around the world. In 1985 Parmalat ceased its involvement with Brabham but continued to be associated with Lauda, who has a deal to always wear a Parmalat baseball cap.

The company began trading on the Milan Stock Exchange in 1990 which helped to fund a sales drive in the United States of America where the company bought Canada's Ault Foods, Beatrice Foods and Astro Dairies.

The company returned to F1 in 1995 with the Forti team, thanks to its connections with the CBD distribution company and the Pao de Acucar supermarket chain - both of which were owned by the Diniz Family. When Pedro Diniz moved to Ligier in 1996 Parmalat followed and then joined Diniz at Arrows in 1997 and 1998. When Diniz joined Sauber in 1999 Parmalat followed him.

In 2003 the company ran into trouble with the Italian authorities, investigating fraud and this led to the arrest of Tanzi just before Christmas that year.