Have you heard the news about mayonnaise? It's not mayonnaise. According to mayonnaise, that is.
This is the crux of the dust-up that erupted last week between Unilever, the ginormous multinational that makes Hellmann's mayonnaise, and Hampton Creek, a California-based food hacking start-up that has unleashed a white spreadable condiment called Just Mayo that's taking the world by storm. The only problem with Just Mayo, according to Unilever, is that it just isn't mayonnaise.
At issue is the not insignificant matter of eggs. Unilever says you can't make mayonnaise without them. On its side, Unilever has convention, history, cookbooks and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which since 1957 has decreed that mayonnaise, by law, must contain eggs. And so Unilever is suing to force Hampton Creek to remove Just Mayo from store shelves.
All of which is bad news for Just Mayo, which has many compelling attributes. It's cheaper than mayonnaise. It doesn't rely on the commodity egg industry, which dooms uncountable millions of hens to a life of cramped egg laying. And it's popular – you can get the stuff at Whole Foods, Wal-Mart, Costco, Safeway and Dollar Tree. (It is not available in Canada.) Part of Hampton Creek's mission statement states that, "Whether you're a hip college student or a single mom raising two kids, everyone should be able to eat delicious food that's healthier, sustainable, and affordable."
So what's the problem? If it looks like mayonnaise and tastes like mayonnaise and appears to be ethically superior to mayonnaise, isn't it okay to call it Just Mayo? No.
Because by calling Just Mayo "mayo" – which I think we can all agree is short for "mayonnaise" and not a reference to the famous medical clinic – Hampton Creek is taking yet another step down a path that is leading to Total Food Confusion. This is not a good path. Once upon a time, the supermarket was a place people went to buy food. Now it's become a hot zone of dire consequences. Deciding what you want to eat has implications for your health, the environment and animal welfare. The only shot we have at successfully navigating it is if the words on packages mean what we think they mean. A lot of the time, they don't.
Consider the Raisin Almond Oat Clusters made by Love Grown Foods as an example. What's not to love about these wholesome-sounding treats? They feature sunflower seeds, flax seeds and cinnamon, not to mention gluten-free oats. But it's ingredient No 2. that's worth having a closer look at: "evaporated cane juice." That bucolic string of words may evoke images of happy peasants hand-squeezing sugar cane and evaporating it on straw mats, but it is, in fact, a refined sugar product nearly identical, nutritionally speaking, to sugar. It's a little like listing the vodka in a Bloody Caesar as "kettle-fired pickled grain vapour."
Everyone is afraid of sugar these days, so companies are coming up with all sorts of pleasant-sounding evasive language. There's "granulated sugar cane juice" in the Blueberry Cinnamon Flax cereal made by Nature's Path and "dried cane syrup" in Kashi's GoLean Crisp cereal. But the problem goes way beyond sugar. "Whole wheat" Ritz Crackers feature more refined wheat than whole wheat. And the raspberry Yoplait yogurt tubes at my local supermarket feature pictures of raspberries on the packaging, but don't list so much as a speck of actual fruit in the ingredients.
When it comes to spin, politicians could learn a lot from food.
So if Just Mayo isn't mayo, what is it? An emulsion, says Penn State's John Coupland, a professor of food science who is one of this continent's foremost experts on emulsions. An emulsion is a stable mixture of oil and water, and the food world is filled with them. Bailey's Irish Cream is an emulsion. So is pesto. And so is ranch dressing, which is a little bit like mayonnaise, though no one calls it mayonnaise. Even pop, whose flavourings are dissolved in a tiny amount of oil, is an emulsion.
Just Mayo is the newest addition – an emulsion of canola oil, water, lemon juice and vinegar. But instead of being held together by eggs, as is the case with mayonnaise, it's held together by a protein extracted from yellow peas. Technologically, it's a stunner – not even Coupland understands quite how Hampton Creek pulled it off. But it's not mayonnaise for the same reason Irish Cream isn't pesto, ranch dressing isn't pop and evaporated cane juice is just another word for sugar.
When it comes to food, words matter. If every product is named according to what corporations want you to think it is versus what it actually is, it becomes very difficult for a hip college student or a single mom to know what he or she is putting in her mouth. That rule should apply to sugar, to raspberry yogurt and to high-tech emulsions. Eating what you think you're eating should be a basic human right. After all, how would vegans feel if Hellman's listed the eggs in its mayo as "avian-based protein?"
Hampton Creek should be proud of the vegan emulsion it has created. But it should call it what it is, not what it isn't. And if you disagree, I have some Irish Cream to sell you, it's a pesto of canola oil, vinegar and eggs that's great on sandwiches. But you can just call it mayo.
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