When Is Mayo Mayo?

A fledgling American business calls its product “Just Mayo.” It contains no eggs, so now powerhouse Unilever is suing.

The Just Mayo jar labels show the silhouette of a plant superimposed on an egg. But Just Mayo, a pale yellow, oily, salty, and somewhat vinegary cream one can spread on bread or mix with salad greens, contains no eggs. Just Mayo is a vegetable product and the Just Mayo jars contain no mayonnaise — at least if you buy into Unilever’s definition. The British-Dutch company is pestering U.S. courts for a decision: When is mayonnaise mayonnaise? And they’re suing the manufacturers of Just Mayo, Hampton Creek Foods — a young vegan foods specialty company in San Francisco — asking the court to stop them from calling Just Mayo mayonnaise.

One might be tempted to make David and Goliath comparisons here, but Hampton Creek isn’t really all that Davidesque. Bill Gates, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang, wealthiest Asian Li Ka-shing from Hong Kong, and major venture capitalists from Silicon Valley are among those who have already invested some $30 million in the company, and it’s growing rapidly. Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, is the IT industry’s favorite butter and egg man. Of course, that’s not saying much compared to Unilever, which grossed nearly $50 billion last year. Hellmann’s mayonnaise alone makes over $1.25 billion annually.

Peas Instead of Eggs

Just Mayo should help end the mass production of chickens, says Tetrick, a vegetarian. The team the 34-year-old has assembled discovered eggs could be eliminated from mayonnaise if they are replaced with a specific species of yellow Canadian pea. The pea protein, oil, water, vinegar and spices are the ingredients in Just Mayo. It tastes similar to regular mayonnaise and costs about the same at the supermarket, around $4.99 for a large jar.

Hampton Creek is one of the hottest start-ups in a robustly growing industry called food engineering. Companies are seeking miracle foods: Foods that are healthier, cheaper and more environmentally friendly — or better yet, all three. Besides Hampton Creek, there are companies developing dairy-free cheese, low-sodium salt, sugar-free bio-candies, poultry substitutes, and hamburger from a test tube. These high-tech foods also have to taste as good as those they’re designed to replace. From their point of view, the trends point to increasing world population from the current 7 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050, and a growing middle class in China and India that will demand more meat, eggs and milk. Approximately 20 percent of the protein in our diets currently comes from animals.

Engineers are Already Working on Egg-Free Scrambled Eggs

But there just aren’t enough animals on earth to feed such a huge population. It would hardly be possible to feed the number of animals needed: That would require gigantic quantities of land and water. Plus, animals produce harmful things like carbon dioxide, which promotes climate change. Added to that come ethical questions about factory farming. Studies suggest that in the midterm it will be necessary to reduce animal products in our food chain. Tetrick says the food industry is completely broken, and that if we wanted to start over thinking about how to provide nourishment to people from square one, it wouldn’t include laying batteries and gargantuan fattening pens. The whole concept would be redesigned.

Unilever and the other food companies don’t like to hear such talk. Unilever subsequently filed a suit, claiming that Just Mayo is illegally reducing its market share for Hellmann’s mayonnaise and thus causing irreparable damage to Unilever. Hampton Creek disclosed no monetary amounts, but Unilever’s suit demands three times the amount of the profits from Just Mayo, plus attorney’s fees. The suit further demands Just Mayo cease using the image of an egg on its label, withdraw advertising claims causing confusion among consumers, and cease claiming Just Mayo is superior to Hellmann’s. Unilever bases its claims on a 1957 Food and Drug Administration guideline stating mayonnaise must contain egg yolk. Tetrick and numerous food experts say the FDA needs to modernize its rules to apply to today’s modern world, and that the decisive factors should be based on taste, consistency, nutritional value and appearance, rather than origins.

Meanwhile, Just Mayo is now no longer just available in health food supermarkets like Whole Foods, but also in chain stores like Target and Walmart. In addition, Hampton Creek has added Just Cookies (egg-free) and dairy products available in four different flavors. And the food engineers are working on its biggest challenge: egg-free scrambled eggs. They’ve already produced a scrambled egg-like mass that tastes like scrambled eggs, although it comes off a bit rubbery when chewed.

Hampton Creek engineers have thus far ground up and tested 2,500 plants — mainly beans and grains — for its scrambled eggs. Tetrick says they will soon render the egg obsolete.

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