An upstart condiment brand may be forced to “hold the mayo” – from its name, at least.
Food giant Unilever, which owns Best Foods and Hellmann’s brands of “Real Mayonnaise,” is suing Hampton Creek, a little startup condiment company, accusing the firm of false advertising because its sandwich spread, Just Mayo, contains no eggs and therefore is not “real mayonnaise,” Time reports.
Technically, Unilever, a U.K.-based, $60 billion multinational corporation, may be right. According to Food & Drug Administration rules, any product calling itself mayonnaise must contain one or more “egg yolk–containing ingredients.” Just Mayo is made with yellow peas instead of eggs. The standards also require mayonnaise to be at least 65 percent vegetable oil. That’s why Kraft’s Miracle Whip, which doesn’t meet that standard, cannot call itself mayonnaise and is technically classified as salad dressing (although what that stuff actually is is anybody’s guess).
However, according to John Lang, an assistant professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, who specializes in food and consumer issues, “This is more about market share than wanting to help consumers avoid deceptive practices. Hampton Creek is quite clear about not using eggs.”
According to the Hampton Creek website, Just Mayo contains just four ingredients: non-GMO expeller-pressed canola oil, filtered water, lemon juice and white vinegar, as well as 2 percent or less of the following: organic sugar, salt, pea protein, spices, modified food starch and beta-carotene.
In contrast, Best Foods/Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise contains canola oil, water, liquid whole egg, vinegar, salt, liquid yolk, sugar, spices, concentrated lemon juice and calcium disodium edta.
The ingredients in Just Mayo are actually very similar to those in Vegenaise, a branded product created by San Fernando Valley–based health food store Follow Your Heart, which has become the go-to substitute spread for vegans. Vegenaise uses mustard flour instead of yellow peas and brown rice syrup instead of sugar. The difference: Just Mayo is targeting the mainstream mayonnaise market, not the vegan consumer (although it is vegan as well). And that is what has gotten Unilever all in a kerfuffle.
“In truth, the problem is that Just Mayo has received lots of mainstream press coverage (and now even more) and they have big distribution agreements with Costco, Walmart, Target and Safeway in addition to Whole Foods,” Lang says. “Being in such mainstream outlets signals that Just Mayo doesn't want to be a niche product but wants to compete with mainstream brands, like Hellmann's/Best Foods. Unilever would also like to have a plant-based (vegan) version of mayo, but it looks like Just Mayo is the first 800-pound gorilla in the market.”
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The Just Mayo website states that its spread is “outrageously delicious, better for your body, for your wallet, and for the planet.” The company makes only one other product — Just Cookie Dough.
In its lawsuit, Unilever is demanding that Just Mayo change its labels and is seeking unspecified compensatory damages (we gotta admit, for eggless mayo, it is kinda odd that Just Mayo has a prominent egg shape on its label). The “harm is impossible to quantify because of the difficulty of measuring lost good will and sales” for Hellmann’s and other mayonnaise makers, the suit states. The suit further claims that the “Just Mayo false name” has “caused consumer deception and serious, irreparable harm to Unilever,” and that it’s “part of a larger campaign and pattern of unfair competition by Hampton Creek to falsely promote Just Mayo spread as tasting better than, and being superior to, Best Foods and Hellmann’s mayonnaise.”
What does Just Mayo have to say in its defense? Well, it doesn’t call itself “mayonnaise,” now does it – just “mayo.” Clever. Very clever.
Hampton Creek maintains that it never claimed the product was genuine mayonnaise, and that the lawsuit is the result of Unilever and Hellmann’s feeling threatened by new competition. “We’re competing directly with a company that hasn’t had real competition in decades,” Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick told the Wall Street Journal.
“Similar to other disruptive shifts, the bigger established company asks the courts to intervene to help secure their place in the market,” Lang agrees. “Even if the lawsuit fails, most often the result is a financially weakened competitor who has used scarce resources to fight off the bigger firm, making it easier for the established bigger firm to catch up. In this case, however, Unilever might have overreached and created a much larger (and more savvy) backlash than anticipated.”
To wit: Andrew Zimmern, the celebrity chef and Travel Channel personality, has created a Change.org petition against “Big Mayo,” asking others to join his effort to get Unilever to “stop bullying sustainable food companies.” Zimmern says, “I preferred the taste of their Just Mayo to Hellmann’s, my ‘must have’ brand, in a blind test.” The online petition, which urges Unilever to drop the lawsuit and “focus more on creating a better world rather than preventing others from trying to do so,” has already registered more than 25,000 signatures.
If you support independent mayo that may or may not technically be mayonnaise, spread the word.