via Moak: Is it mayonnaise or not?, clarionledger.com, 8/28/2015.
If you saw a product named “Just Mayo,” with the label covering a jar filled with a white, creamy substance, you would probably assume that the jar contains mayonnaise. But that assumption — according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, anyway — would be incorrect.
In a letter to Hampton Creek (which makes “Just Mayo” and related products), the FDA’s William Correll Jr. recently took the company to task for calling the product “mayonnaise” when, in fact, it didn’t meet the FDA definition of what constitutes that product. “Your Just Mayo and Just Mayo Sriracha products,” Correll admonished, “are misbranded … in that they purport to be the standardized food mayonnaise due to the misleading name and imagery used on the label, but do not qualify as the standardized food mayonnaise as described under 21 CFR 169.140.”
Sharp-eyed news junkies may remember that Hampton Creek and its products were the subject of a threatened — then dropped — lawsuit late in 2014 by consumer products behemoth Unilever over the very same issue. During the fray, Unilever itself had to clarify that some of its own Hellmann’s products were actually “mayonnaise dressing,” not mayonnaise.
According to Merriam-Webster, mayonnaise is “a thick, white sauce used especially in salads and on sandwiches and made chiefly of eggs, vegetable oil, and vinegar or lemon juice,” or “a food made by mixing something (such as chopped eggs) with mayonnaise.”
In particular, Correll noted, since there are no eggs in the product, that can’t possibly be mayonnaise in that jar (as anyone knows who has produced homemade mayo). In addition to the naming, Correll called out the company for making what he called unjustifiable claims as to the heart health of the product, and to the nutrients claimed on the label.
Now, while no doubt many of you are rolling your eyes at government overreach and/or interfering with private businesses, the FDA takes its job seriously, and in fact, we all have benefited from high standards. Whether there has actually been — or could be — any harm is quite another question altogether, and it should be noted that Hampton Creek’s niche market might be fully aware there are really no eggs in Just Mayo — maybe it’s why they buy it in the first place.
Many consumers are no doubt blissfully unaware that there are definitions to just about every type of product available, from what constitutes the proper weight and configuration of a “paper clip” to the types of chemicals and miscellaneous junk that can go into packaged foods. What you can say about a product on the label or in marketing is tightly regulated, especially if it deals with health claims. For example, claims such as “gluten-free” or “may contain peanuts” may not make much difference to the average person, but can be deadly serious if you happen to have celiac disease or a peanut allergy. Product labels have a big responsibility — to tell the truth about what’s inside.
The bottom line: We should all get better at reading labels to see what’s actually in our food. The American food labeling system — as cumbersome and onerous as it may be — is actually among the best in the world. If you’re interested in finding out more about how to assess those food label claims, Stephanie Morish at Denver Sports Recovery back in May wrote a great piece about some key things to consider when looking at what’s in your food. It’s worth a visit.
One clear winner in all this hoopla over what does or does not constitute mayonnaise: Hampton Creek. Although they aren’t likely to break the stranglehold held by established mayonnaise brands — it’s one of those things on which most people just won’t compromise — the company seems to be basking in the attention as it portrays itself as David fighting the establishment Goliath. It will be interesting to watch.