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What's Behind the Great Mayo War of 2014?

Scott Lucas | November 12, 2014 | Story Ingredient

It's gloppy. It's gelatinous. It's the unexpected subject of much litigiousness. But what, exactly, is mayonnaise?

That sounds like the subject of a late-night dorm-room debate—and while we're at it, this weed is suuuper-strong, man—but it’s actually the focus of a lawsuit filed by Unilever, the owner of Hellman’s mayo, against San Francisco’s Hampton Creek, which produces a vegan mayonnaise that’s beginning to mount a threat to its much-larger rival’s market share.

Unilver is accusing its rival of false advertising because its product doesn’t contain one of mayonnaise’s traditional ingredients—eggs. A spokesperson for the conglomerate told the San Francisco Business Times, “In fact, the product is Just NOT Mayo as it does not contain one of mayonnaise's key ingredients—eggs—in violation of the federal regulations that are in place to protect consumers.” The $60 billion conglomerate is asking the court for, among other things, financial damages and a product recall. Its also asking that Hampton Creek be forced to stop using pictures of eggs in its packaging.

It’s a fight that's less about emulsification and more about market penetration. Hampton Creek, which is backed by Bill Gates and other VCs, is beginning to expand its reach into mainstream retailers like Walmart, Costco, and Whole Foods. The company’s products are made with plant-based egg alternatives, which Hampton Creek says are more environmentally sustainable than animal products. (Full disclosure: We once sampled some free sandwiches made with Hampton Creek’s mayo, and couldn’t tell the difference between it and the egg-made stuff. Full disclosure to the full disclosure: We were drunk.)

It’s easy to view Unilver’s suit as corporate bullshit (it probably is!). But according to FDA regulations, Unilever might not be wrong. The FDA defines mayonnaise as “the emulsified semisolid food prepared from vegetable oil(s), one or both of the acidifying ingredients, and one or more of the egg yolk-containing ingredients.” (Your federal government, ladies and gentleman: Can't fix health care or income inequality, but can define mayo with discomfiting specificity.) Worse still for the vegans, one of the bibles of French cuisine, the Larousse Gastronomique, agrees with the American bureaucracy. “Mayonnaise, in our view, is a popular corruption of moyeunaise,” it writes, “derived from the very old French word moyeu, which means yolk of egg.” No egg yolks, no mayo. The FDA has held in the past that vegan alternatives to animal products such as cheese or milk can't be labeled as cheese or milk. (Hence Chick'n.) But it may be more complicated for mayo.

Chemically speaking, the emulsificiation process that creates mayonnaise can be made with any kind of lecithin, including that derived from plants like soybeans. It’s just easiest and most traditional to do it with egg yolks. An online petition asking Unilever to drop the suit has garnered over 22,000 signatures, accusing the giant of "attempting to rely on an archaic standard of identity regulation that was created before World War II." In any case, it’s a surprising move by Unilever, since thanks to it we—and every other publication—have spent hundreds of words describing their competition. That’s Hampton Creek, folks. Hampton Creek. Tastes just like the other stuff, but doesn’t destroy the planet. Hampton Creek. Available at fine retailers everywhere.

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