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Hellmann's Drops Suit, Unintentionally Boosts Vegan 'Mayo' Sales

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Investment & Markets
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Our perceptions of food are changing, and so is our level of acceptance toward changes to those quintessential recipes we grew up with. Just log into a cooking site and you can find a mayonnaise recipe to fit just about any dietary restriction or preference. No eggs? No problem.

But that isn’t how Hellmann’s, which refers to its egg-full sandwich spread as "real mayonnaise," saw it. Last November Hellmann's, owned by Best Foods (which is owned by Unilever), launched a suit against a startup food company for misleading consumers by referring to its new eggless product "mayo."

The vegan product, boldly called "Just Mayo," was the brainchild of Hampton Creek, a food tech company based in San Francisco that's become known for its unorthodox approach to America's quintessential recipes. In the manufacturing giant's view, however, the recipe alteration confused consumers and constituted "stealing market share from Hellmann's."

After consumers protested and Hellmann's was accused of tweaking information on its website that suggested that some of its mayo products might also be missing eggs, the company dropped the suit  a week before Christmas.

With new research that suggests that food allergies are increasing in the western world and current concerns about H5N1 outbreaks in poultry  in the Northwest, the U.S. market is ripe for vegan/vegetarian products that can address individual needs and preferences. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, 3.4 percent or 7.5 million surveyed identified themselves as vegetarian in 2009. Of that number, 0.80 percent, or 1.8 million said they were vegan. The numbers have increased in recent years, with confessions by movie stars and political icons who admit they've sworn off of meat-based foods.

All of this puts weight in Hampton Creek's favor and has likely piqued the interest of other food manufacturers as well. Still, it brings up a great question for today's foodies: Does altering mama's state-of-the-art recipe change what you can call the store-bought product? Is gluten-free bread that touts "whole grains" (and includes a good amount of things like tapioca and buckwheat) fudging the context?

It's a question that most food manufacturers don't want to become embroiled in these days, particularly in light of the increasing debate over genetically modified organisms (GMO) and the questions concerning U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that allow drink producers to advertise their highly-sugared juice cocktail drinks as "juice" on store banners.

As for Just Mayo, sales have been just great since Hellmann's launched its suit. A consumer-led online petition and plenty of advertising from the suit helped promote its brand name as well as its vegan-friendly qualities. I'll be interested to see what new tangents mayo-makers come up with next to court the interests of America's growing number of vegetarian consumers.

Image credit: Mike Mozart

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee