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Cracking up over mayo

by Ari LeVaux

They say the wars of the future will be fought over water, and recent years have definitely made that seem possible. But a major war is being waged right now, about something thicker than water, thicker than blood, and white as the fallen snow. Mayonnaise. And the problem seems to be that nobody knows what mayo is.

Last week the Guardian reported on emails that revealed possible collusion between the American Egg Board, which is part of the U.S. government, and two industry groups – I’ll call them Big Egg and Big Mayo. Their shared goal was to throttle the growth of an upstart purveyor of egg-free mayonnaise, the Silicon Valley-backed Hampton Creek, which turns four years old in December. The AEB is a taxpayer-funded government body. The emails, obtained via a Freedom of Information request, detail a sustained campaign against Hampton Creek by the taxpayer-funded AEB, the president of which wrote that Just Mayo presents “a crisis and major threat to the future of the egg product business.”

Words like “attack” routinely appear in the AEB emails, which amount to a group brainstorm about what to do about the Just Mayo problem. It turns out that AEB had advised Unilever during its brief legal campaign against Just Mayo in December 2014, in which the parent company of Hellmann’s/Best Foods Real Mayonnaise sued Hampton Creek over the name of its signature product, Just Mayo.

The lawsuit had alleged false advertising, because mayonnaise contains eggs according to FDA’s definition, and mayo is nothing more than shorthand for mayonnaise. The action turned into a PR disaster for Unilever, which was crucified on social media for being a corporate bully, while at the same time giving Just Mayo a huge publicity bump. The fact that Unilever actually appeared to fear Just Mayo made people all the more curious.

Unilever dropped the suit, but was encouraged by the AEB to “push” the FDA to take a look at the Just Mayo label and make its own ruling. In August, the agency ruled that Just Mayo can’t be called mayonnaise, or mayo, because it doesn’t contain eggs.

The emails also revealed attempts, some successful, to pay food celebrities and high-profile food bloggers to emphasize the irreplaceable nature of real egg products, thoughts on how to pressure Whole Foods to not carry Just Mayo, and even included the presumably joking suggestion that someone contact “...some old buddies in Brooklyn to pay (Hampton Creek CEO) Josh Tetrick a visit.”

Besides being a bit out of touch with how things are going in Brooklyn these days, using taxpayer money to joke about hit jobs on the head of a company it doesn’t like isn’t appropriate for government business, nor are collusions with certain corporations to gang up on another. Tetrick has indicated a Congressional investigation is coming.

I’ve been watching the mayo wars with interest and amusement. While the David vs Goliath spectacle, as well as the conspiracy between the government and big business, make for riveting drama, I’m hoping all of this fuss leads us to engage a more important, fundamental question that deserves pondering, for reasons much more important than solving a semantic dispute. It’s a question that gets to the existential heart of flavor, because it’s a question that only the tongue can answer.

What is mayo? According to FDA, “Mayonnaise is the emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil(s), one or both of the acidifying ingredients specified in paragraph (b) of this section, and one or more egg yolk-containing ingredients.”

The definition also states, “Mayonnaise contains not less than 65 percent by weight of vegetable oil.”

This last sentence is the most meaningful, because mayo is, in essence, an oil-based condiment in a semi-solid, spreadable form. Therefore it must consist mostly of oil. And the only way to get it into that pleasing mayo form is to emulsify it.

Emulsions are stable mixtures of substances that typically don’t mix, or stay mixed; in the case of mayo those would be oil and water. Yolk has long been an irreplaceable ingredient in mayo because it contains many emulsifiers and does a wonderful job at making mayonnaise emulsions that are sturdy, creamy, durable and nonoffensive.

All of that extra oil sets real mayonnaise apart from wannabe spreads like Miracle Whip, which is considered a dressing and not real mayonnaise because it is thickened with added starch and sugar.

But while fat is essential to mayonnaise, egg is not, especially anymore, with so many plant-based emulsifiers having come along that work just as well as egg yolk in taking seasoned oil to that special, creamy place. The ingredients in Vegenaise, another brand of egg-free mayo that happens to be in my (decidedly non-vegan) fridge, are virtually identical to those listed on the label of Hellmann’s/Best Foods, with the only difference being egg yolk is replaced by pea protein. Only the emulsifier is different, and it’s a very small quantity, so small that Hellmann’s, Vegenaise and Just Mayo all register as containing “0% protein,” in terms of one’s daily allowance, despite all of their products being emulsified by protein. The 0.13 grams of protein per serving of Hellmann’s clocks in at 1/384th of your daily recommended dose; one would need to eat a gallon and a half of it in order to hit one’s daily protein target.

Even if Big Egg and Big Mayo succeed in changing Just Mayo’s name, it will be a moral victory at best. Nothing will be able to change the fact that egg replacements are on the march. It’s amazing that Vegenaise maker Follow Your Heart is just cruising along quietly, with a product that’s superior to Just Mayo, in my opinion, and any other mayo, with or without eggs, on the market. One would think Vegenaise would present a crisis as well, but apparently not. None of the controversy or drama that surrounds Hampton Creek has rubbed off on Follow Your Heart. I reached out to Follow Your Heart to see if it cared to offer any insight into the mayo wars. A representative respectfully declined to comment.

I suspect the FDA law will be changed, because it’s wrong, as anyone with a mouth could tell you. But the mayo wars might churn for a while first. So grab your popcorn, and a gallon and a half of mayo for extra protein, and enjoy the drama.

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