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Just Mayo: Why the FDA Got It Wrong

The US Food and Drug Administration tells Hampton Creek Foods to stop using the word "mayo" in its Just Mayo brand of vegan mayonnaise.

According to a TIME.com story posted this week, the US Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to Hampton Creek Foods expressing concern with the company’s egg-less mayonnaise product, Just Mayo. The memo outlines four areas in which the San Francisco-based business is “in violation of section 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 343] and its implementing regulations found in Title 21, Code of Federal Regulations, Part 101 (21 CFR 101).” If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry because neither do I.

Among other things, the letter—released Tuesday and signed by FDA director of the office of compliance center for food safety and applied nutrition William A. Correll, Jr.—states that Just Mayo is in “violation” of FDA standards due to the use of the word “mayo” in its product. The memo also explains how in “the standard of identity for mayonnaise, egg is a required ingredient.” Furthermore, “based on the ingredient information on the labels, these products do not contain eggs.” I wasn’t in Hampton Creek’s office that day, but I’m pretty sure no one there needed to be told its products didn’t contain eggs.

But that’s not the point.

The point is this: With all of the unhealthy, unnecessary ingredients placed in conventional food these days, shouldn’t the FDA be commending Just Mayo for pushing our food culture forward, for finding a new, better way to feed people?

Apparently not. Rather than promote a progressive-thinking company, the FDA has gone the opposite route and taken umbrage with the use of the word “mayo” in the product’s name. Which is fine, but—excuse me—what about foods such as bacon? On its website, McCormick describes its Bac’n Bits as “Bacon Flavored Bits … artificially flavored textured soy flour to imitate bacon pieces” while Betty Crocker’s Bac~Os are listed as being made with “Defatted Soy Flour, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt, Water, Sugar, Natural and Artificial Flavor, Caramel Color and Red 40, Tocopherol (preservative).” Last I checked, neither of those products have a drop of bacon in them, and couldn’t we argue that words such as “Bac’n” and “Baco~S” are to “bacon” what “mayo” is to “mayonnaise?”

Bacon aside, I can’t help but think that the FDA should be more concerned with the amount of sugar in children’s cereal, high-fructose corn syrup in certain peanut butters, breads unnecessarily made with whey, or the fact that apples from the grocery store are waxier than the candles I light at night. I know when I see the front of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes Energy Cluster box, I’d like to think that supposed energy isn’t coming from sugar. But with 17 grams of sugar per cup (and 41 grams of carbohydrates per cup), it is. That, to me, seems much shadier than passing off an egg-less mayonnaise as the “real” thing. Don’t get me wrong—I love the idea of getting so energized that I feel like swimming to Hawaii before lunch, but not if that jolt of energy comes with a noon-time crash. And from where I’m sitting, that means I’d die in the shark-infested waters just outside Alcatraz.

Then there’s the mislabeling of “fruit juices.” For instance, in its original form, Hi-C was made from orange juice concentrate, peel oil and orange essences, sugar, water, citric acid, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). That was in the late 1940s. Today, the Orange Lavaburst flavor is made with water, high fructose corn syrup, citric acid, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), potassium benzoate, modified food starch, natural flavors, glycerol ester of wood rosin, yellow 6, brominated vegetable oil, and red 40. Not only is that a completely different recipe, the front of the Hi-C box says “Orange Lavaburst” when, according to the ingredients, there’s no orange to be found in this product.

I’m not totally against this idea that foods need to meet a certain standard in order to be placed on store shelves. Quite the opposite. I like knowing what’s in my grub (and what’s not). The issue here, as I see it, is not Just Mayo’s lack of eggs in its mayonnaise but the FDA’s unwillingness to alter its definition for reasons that appear to be unclear.

It’s not like the definition of other foods hasn’t changed over the course of time. For instance, the chocolate we eat today would be unrecognizable to cacao revelers in Mesoamerica some three millennia ago. In 1587, colonists in Virginia made beer from corn. Yeah, I know, plenty of beers continue to use corn and corn syrup as a way to lighten color and density. And I know the FDA doesn’t regulate alcohol (that’s the Department of Treasury’s job), but the recent craft beer explosion has provided me with plenty of opportunities to imbibe in corn-less brew, and I ain’t complaining. Neither are the countless others who don’t seem to mind that the beer we drink today isn’t exactly the same as it was 428 years ago. So what’s the problem?

And because the FDA is so concerned with marketing all of a sudden, isn’t the term “diet soda” the ultimate misnomer? There’s absolutely nothing “diet” about soda, and studies have proven the lower-calorie drink has equally if not worse side effects than its traditional counterpart (the artificial sweetener getting us drunk quicker not being one of them). I get it—“diet soda” isn’t meant to be interpreted that way. Instead, we’re supposed to know “diet soda” means “a version of soda that is (arguably) slightly healthier for you than traditional soda.” I know that, and maybe the FDA knows that, but I’d bet all $2,000 in my savings account that plenty of diet Coke drinkers don’t.

Since we’re on the subject of Coke … remember when the carbonated beverage was made with cocaine? The FDA was created in 1906, but multiple sources I’ve read says Coca-Cola didn’t become free of nose nachos until 1929. Explain that one, FDA.

If people enjoy Just Mayo regardless of what is and what is not in the product, then maybe that says something about consumers’ preferences. And if my high school economics class taught me anything, it’s that capitalism is about letting the market dictate what works and what doesn’t. In the case of Just Mayo, I’d argue the market has spoken. Besides, it’s not like Hampton Creek’s egg-less mayo is hurting anybody, so rather than being on the losing side of history, it’s time the FDA quit pandering to whatever big-bucked lobby it’s pandering to and give us our vegan mayonnaise without hassle.

Ryan Ritchie is the senior editor of VegNews.

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