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Just Mayo, Deception, and Unilever

November 12, 2014

Let the buyer beware. The supermarket is a minefield of deceptive labeling. For me, it has almost become a game, and it’s one I’m trying to teach my kids. SunnyD is sold in the juice aisle, but is it actually juice? Why is Cheez Whiz spelled wrong? Well, it could be to secure a trademark, but most likely it’s because the orange goop in the jar cannot be labeled “cheese” by law.

John Oliver has a great segment that begins with the recent court battle over pomegranate juice and ends with the first amendment. It’s a brilliant piece which you should watch.

Now even though I’m keenly aware of supermarket shenanigans, and for the most part I’m a careful label reader, occasionally I get hoodwinked. This happened recently with a product called Just Mayo.

Let me set the record straight. I like to make my own mayonnaise. I do. But I haven’t figured out how to make it without making a ton of it. Having a lot of fresh mayonnaise around is dangerous for a person with a fat tooth like mine. So part of what appealed to me about this product was its small size. The other thing was the clear quality of its ingredients. Obviously, Just Mayo was made for people just like me.

There’s only one problem, and that problem has recently earned them a massive legal battle.

Just Mayo isn’t mayonnaise. There are no eggs in the thing at all despite having a prominent picture of an egg on its label. And eggs are a requirement in mayonnaise by law.

Just Mayo is made from non-GMO expeller pressed canola oil, filtered water, lemon juice, white vinegar, organic sugar, salt, pea protein, spices, modified food starch, beta-carotene, calcium disodium EDTA (to preserve freshness).

In its defense, on the back label Just Mayo boasts being Cholesterol-Free, Non-GMO, Soy-Free, Egg-Free, Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Lactose-Free, and Kosher. Somehow I missed the egg-free part, otherwise I most likely would have left it on the shelf.

That said, the stuff isn’t bad. And clearly it’s cutting into Hellman’s market share, because Unilever has filed a suit for three times Just Mayo’s profits, in addition to legal fees. Yikes.

But here’s the funny part. Unilever is accusing Just Mayo of deceptive marketing practices.

Why is that funny? Well, may I remind you that Unilever is the company that owns Breyers? A brand that turned deception into an art form with its Orwellian packaging design changes that gradually transitioned this all natural brand of ice cream into an additive-packed line of frozen dairy desserts.

Pop quiz. Describe a Klondike Bar. Write it down. The answer is at the end of the post.

If Unilever is upset about Just Mayo, I’d suspect they would be equally outraged by the packaging and marketing of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! There’s the confusing double negative and to the casual observer the label looks like it simply reads, “Butter!” To make the deception even worse, ICBINB just recently changed its formulation and removed the trace amounts of sweet cream buttermilk. Now, according to its loyal users, it no longer tastes anything like butter. One person couldn’t even get it to melt in their microwave.

Did I mention that I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! is a Unilever brand too? Good Humor makes a Toasted Almond ice cream bar. Almonds actually make the ingredient list. But they are dead last, after soybean oil and after palm oil. The package of six bars shows six almonds on the front of the box. I doubt very much that each bar has even one almond worth of almond dusted onto its coating. In my book this is just another example of Unilever’s deceptive marketing.

Is Just Mayo deceptive? Absolutely. It totally fooled me. Is it more deceptive than the industry norms? Hardly. In fact “mayo” has been used by both Earth Balance and Spectrum Naturals to describe their eggless spreadable emulsions of oil, vinegar and seasonings without incident.

Could you imagine if Unilever won this suit? I’m no lawyer, but it seems that the company would be creating a precedent that could launch actionable complaints about its own marketing and labeling practices.

Much of the chatter around this case is about big food bullying the little guy. I don’t see it that way. The little guy is wrong. The big guy is wrong. The whole system is so hopelessly screwed up, it seems like nobody even knows what it means to be right anymore.

The moral of this story, like many others before it, is let the buyer beware. Always, always read the ingredients. Even if it’s a product you’ve bought before. Even if it’s a brand that’s been around for most of a century.

* If you are like most people you would have said something like, “a Klondike is a chocolate-covered square of ice cream.” And you would be wrong. It doesn’t have enough milk fat to be ice cream, it’s technically “light ice cream”. And the coating isn’t chocolate, merely “milk chocolate flavored.” And yes, Klondike is also owned by Unilever.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2014 11:35 am

    Isn’t ‘modified’ food starch something that’s no bueno? When modified is in the list of ingredients of food I usually put it back on the shelf thinking that it’s bad for me.

  2. November 13, 2014 11:21 am

    I love Just Mayo, but I also new that it was egg free because I read about it first on Serious Eats. http://www.seriouseats.com/2014/02/vegan-mayonnaise-taste-test-produces-surprising-results.html

    I would have thought that Hampton Creek’s concept of trying to find plant based alternatives to egg and dairy would be something that you could get behind. Not from a vegan standpoint but from an ethical and environmental one.

    Like you said deception on product labeling is rampant in the industry, I don’t think Hampton Creek’s labeling of ‘Just Mayo’ was trying to be intentionally deceptive. They probably should have called it something along the lines of ‘Beyond Mayo’, the way they label their egg substitute, ‘Beyond Eggs’ being sold to food manufactures.

    I hope they make it out of this lawsuit unscathed or slightly bruised and can continue with their core mission, we need forward thinking companies like this to move the food industry in a better direction. I will continue to drink the Kool-aid Hampton Creek is selling and buy Just Mayo even if it’s labeled deceptively and not really mayo. They also have Just Cookie Dough coming out that is egg and dairy free and I plan on trying that too and I am far from vegan.

  3. Ryan H. permalink
    November 13, 2014 6:39 pm

    I love stuff like this, these marketing loopholes. There was a funny talk about this recently on the podcast Mike And Tom Eat Snacks where they eat Nabisco Nilla Wafers. They’re called that because, of course, there’s no real vanilla in it. And notice they don’t even put an apostrophe on the word “nilla” because that might also imply vanilla.

  4. EPT permalink
    November 16, 2014 10:50 am

    Just go to Shoprite buy the pasteurized eggs and make your mayo at home. You don’t have to make a ton of it.

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