Last Friday, the Anglo-Dutch mega-conglomerate Unilever, owner of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise, filed suit against the vegan upstart Hampton Creek, maker of egg-free Just Mayo, citing “false advertising and unfair competition,” and
whining claiming that “Just Mayo already is stealing market share from Hellmann’s.”
Unilever, which long ago swallowed Ben & Jerry’s, Breyer’s, Lipton, Mrs. Filbert’s, Slimfast, Close-Up, Noxzema, Q-Tips, Vaseline, and hundreds of other brands into its multinational maw, argues that “Hampton Creek’s materially false and misleading Just Mayo name, packaging, and advertising has caused and unless restrained will continue to cause great and irreparable injury to Unilever.” That irreparable injury—for which Unilever requests that Hampton Creek change the name, remove all jars from shelves, and pay Unilever three times damages, plus attorney’s fees—comes because Hampton Creek is trying to pass off its eggless goop as mayonnaise, which “damages the entire product category, which has strived for decades for a consistent definition of ‘mayonnaise’ that fits with consumer expectations.” The FDA, Unilever correctly points out, defines mayonnaise as including an “egg-yolk containing ingredient.” Hampton Creek has fired back that, duh, that’s why they call their product mayo, not mayonnaise.
Mayo 101: Oil and water hate each other. Shake them up in a bottle, and they’ll retreat to their respective corners as quickly as possible. But sometime in the 1700s, some proto–molecular gastronomist discovered that if you add an egg to the mix, its unique lipoproteins will run interference, forming a thicket of long molecules that trap the oil droplets and prevent them from coalescing and rising to the surface. Sauce Mayonnaise was born, and quickly swept the Continent. That was pretty much the end of innovation in the mayonnaise sector, until recently, when Hampton Creek hit upon a method of tweaking yellow pea proteins to act like egg proteins. Just Mayo was born. And quickly sued.
Now Hampton Creek is preparing a countersuit, and it looks like things are going to get all ontological as the two parties grapple with that age-old question, “What makes mayo mayo?” More on that in a bit, but first I’d like to focus on Unilever’s other grievance: Hampton Creek’s “false and unsubstantiated claims that Just Mayo tastes better than the Best Foods and Hellmann’s brands of mayonnaise, and is therefore superior.” You see, Hampton Creek posted on Facebook that it was “Beating Hellmann’s in taste tests,” and also posted a rather adorable cartoon of a jar of Just Mayo with boxing gloves standing over a KOed jar of Hellmann’s and being declared “The Winner!” Not cool, says Unilever. “Hampton Creek’s superiority claims are false because they are not supported by reliable testing that reflects actual consumer preferences.”
Well, I have no idea who Hampton Creek’s guinea pigs were, but I’m an actual consumer who loves mayo with his fries as much as the next guy (okay, a lot more than the next guy), so I figured I could put those claims to the test. I picked up jars of Hellmann’s and Just Mayo (which, though it has only been on the market six months, has already conquered mainstream markets like Walmart and Costco), along with Vegenaise, the previous generation of vegan mayo, and Miracle Whip as a control group. Wednesday morning, I commenced with the Great Mayo Smackdown. (Word of caution: As a general rule, I don’t recommend eating four bowls of mayonnaise for breakfast.)
Differences were obvious from the outset. While all the other mayos were smooth in texture, Hellmann’s is distinctively clumpy. It clots the way hollandaise sauce does when you mess it up. Frankly, it’s a little bit weird; if we weren’t all so used to it, it would be a deal-breaker. Just Mayo was velvety and uniform, while the Vegenaise was ghostly white and stiff enough to hold the shape of the scoop, like vanilla ice cream.
Hellmann’s tastes primarily of salt. I’d never noticed this before. The industrially processed soybean oil it uses has had all flavor stripped out of it, so all we’re left with is a salty, tongue-coating, vaguely acid richness. It’s good, clean, and nothing stands out, which is really all you ask of mayo. The Just Mayo, by contrast, is assertively lemony. That may be to balance the nutty, cereal taste of its naturally pressed canola oil, but it also makes the Just Mayo come across as much less salty than the Hellmann’s (even though it’s only 11% lower in sodium). The Vegenaise was nearly tasteless, which was a huge improvement on the loathsome Miracle Whip. Sickly sweet, it tasted like pallid Russian dressing that had oozed out of a fast-food condiment dispenser.
Score one for Just Mayo. But perhaps I was biased? In the name of objectivity, I asked my wife to taste them blind. (I spared her the Miracle Whip.) A brand loyalist who tends to be suspicious of anything she hasn’t known since childhood, she seemed like a good “palate of America,” and she didn’t disappoint. After surveying the three bowls for a microsecond, she pointed and said, “That’s the Hellmann’s,” and she was right. Then she tasted it. “Yep. Balanced. Creamy. Yum.” Then she tasted the Just Mayo. “That tastes like a plant,” she said, flicking the offending bowl out of the lineup with her finger. And that was that.
I can’t disagree. I’ll just say that I have a name for that plant. I call it “the lemon,” and to me it’s Just Mayo’s strength, especially in a functional setting. On a tomato sandwich or in potato salad, that velvety tang is lovely. It tastes like it was made from real ingredients in a way that Hellmann’s salty white gloop doesn’t. I’ll be reaching for it from now on, partly because of taste, but mostly because of ingredients.
And this is where Unilever’s gripe about “unfair competition” seems especially absurd. Making an eggless emulsion that tastes and performs like mayonnaise isn’t unfair competition; it’s a technological breakthrough. Imagine if the Carriage Manufacturers of America sued Henry Ford because the Model T didn’t have a horse attached to it.
No one has ever reached for mayonnaise because it has egg in it. My sandwich grease doesn’t need to include an ingredient that fell out of a chicken’s ass (okay, cloaca); I just thought that was a small and unpleasant necessity. Just Mayo doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s egg-free; it trumpets that detail at every opportunity.
The environmental and humanitarian implications are immense. Layer hens in this country lead horrendous lives. Nobody has captured this better than Paul Solotaroff in his December 2013 Rolling Stone expose of factory farming:
You are a typical egg-laying chicken in America, and this is your life: You’re trapped in a cage with six to eight hens, each given less than a square foot of space to roost and sleep in. The cages rise five high and run thousands long in a warehouse without windows or skylights. You see and smell nothing from the moment of your birth but the shit coming down through the open slats of the battery cages above you. It coats your feathers and becomes a second skin; by the time you’re plucked from your cage for slaughter, your bones and wings breaking in the grasp of harried workers, you look less like a hen than an oil-spill duck, blackened by years of droppings. Your eyes tear constantly from the fumes of your own urine, you wheeze and gasp like a retired miner, and you’re beset every second of the waking day by mice and plaguelike clouds of flies.
Meanwhile your eggs roll out of you and down to a conveyor belt for about two years before you expire from disease and exhaustion. Male chicks don’t endure those two years of hell, which is either good or bad, depending on how you look at it. Instead, the day they are born, as soon as they are identified as male, they are tossed live into meat grinders. (Blood-chilling video here.) That happens to hundreds of millions of male chicks every year. Then there are the rampant diseases, massive egg recalls, and manure pollution that are part and parcel of factory egg farms. All these reasons are why many of us have chosen to forego factory eggs, or anything made with them. Call us “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelets.”
Unilever, to its credit, is working on technology that will allow it to identify and eliminate male chicks before they are born, and it has sworn off battery cages, but the big question remains: If you can easily buy a delicious mayonnaise (sorry, “sandwich spread”) made without animal products, why would you buy the eggy kind? If you can buy just mayo, why would you ever choose unjust mayo?
I have no answer for this, and I don’t think Unilever does, either, which explains their panic. It’s no coincidence that Unilever’s lawsuit was filed a few days after Just Mayo hit Walmart shelves nationwide. In the six months it’s been on the market, it’s already become Whole Foods’ most popular mayo. It’s killing it at Safeway, Kroger, Costco, and Target. It’s not just for hippies anymore.
Unilever reportedly has some egg-replacement products in the works, but it looks to be a day late. Just Mayo will continue to steal market share from Hellmann’s, not because consumers think it has egg in it, but because they know it doesn’t. It’s a game-changer, and Unilever knows it. And they are squealing in fear. The most humane thing we can do is to put them out of their misery as quickly as possible.
James Beard Award winner Rowan Jacobsen’s new book, Apples of Uncommon Character, was just released.