ColumnWhen a vegan mayonnaise company says it’s out to change the world, people listen. After all, we’ve gotten used to mediocre mayonnaise that does little more than add a glistening tang to sandwiches and salad dressings. But can Hampton Creek, the San Francisco-based eggless mayo brand, do what it claims? We go behind the label to find out.
Founded in 2011 by Joshua Tetrick, Hampton Creek Foods, Inc., has sprouted up more like a drought-stricken California wildfire than a sandwich spread. With significant funding from the tech world, Hampton Creek was able to quickly get placement in a rather unexciting category.
Its biggest achievement, aside from what many people say is quite a tasty product, is achieving its mayonnaise-like spread without the use of eggs, which are used in traditional mayonnaise. Hampton Creek relies instead on pea protein, making its eggless mayonnaise vegan.
That achievement alone earned it praise, as the egg industry is considered to be one of the cruelest: Egg-laying hens live in small cages where disease and injury are commonplace. Most egg-laying hens never see the outdoors or get to spread their wings.
Aside from its consideration for animals, Hampton Creek says it’s also focused on making an affordable, delicious, and healthy product for American consumers. The company had received significant retail support, including placement of its mayo in Dollar Tree stores, Target, and Walmart. The company says Just Mayo is now in more than 20,000 stores—quite an accomplishment, considering it’s not yet four years old.
These goals—animal-free and affordable for everyone—also take the environment into consideration. According to the company, Hampton Creek’s products (there’s also eggless cookie dough and cookies, but they’re not yet as big of a focus for the brand as its mayo product) have a low carbon footprint. Earlier this month, the company was named a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, landing on a list of 49 of the most innovative companies in the world, according to the Hampton Creek website.
CEO and Founder Josh Tetrick earned praise when he penned a recent open letter to the 2016 presidential candidates that appeared in the New York Times.
“You have an opportunity to solve an epic problem,” he wrote. “Our outdated food system is the thread running through our most important problems, from diabetes and obesity (health care), to food deserts (race relations), to the decline of our family farms (economy). Folks don’t believe good food for everyone is possible.”
Tetrick’s letter pointed to an ongoing issue that’s not addressed as often or seriously as it should be. And considering that most of the presidential candidates are linked to the industries that perpetuate our bad food problem, Tetrick’s move was bold, even if it was also a bit self-serving in nature.
The company also appeared as the victorious underdog when Unilever, parent company to Hellman’s mayonnaise, dropped a 2014 lawsuit over the use of the word “mayonnaise” on the Hampton Creek products. Unilever cited a decades-old definition of mayonnaise that included egg as an ingredient, and the multinational corporation claimed that Hampton Creek was misusing the term and confusing customers. Clearly a play at preserving its large market share (Unilever also forced its biggest rival Kraft to call Miracle Whip a “dressing” rather than mayo), the Unilever lawsuit was eventually dropped. Hampton Creek was celebrated for not only getting a Big Food brand to back down, but for bringing validity to egg substitutes as legitimate alternative ingredients.
Despite its satisfied customer base, a recent media exposé pointed to numerous claims of wrongdoing at the corporate offices of Hampton Creek Foods, Inc.
Among the accusations are those of misleading marketing around a supposed “plant database” that the company used to increase its funding. One former employee called it a “food company masquerading as a tech company.” Now valued at $300 million, the company achieved that by securing heavy funding from Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin, and Salesforce CEO and founder Marc Benioff, as well as significant support from Bill Gates.
Former employees Business Insider spoke with said Hampton Creek exaggerated the number of plant samples it had analyzed: “One person said that the actual number was below 1,000. Another said, ‘when they were saying 4,000, it was probably closer to 400. At least 5x less than it was claimed, and that’s conservatively.’”
The deception may not matter so much on your sandwich, especially if you like the way Just Mayo tastes, but the former employees say it’s proof that the company isn’t as selfless as it may it seem—it may be trying to change the world with mayonnaise, but it appears it’s also trying to get rich and boost Tetrick into the spotlight as well. Nor is Hampton Creek employing the science and research that it cited to help raise funding. “When the mayo was launched, it would turn brown when added to seafood salads or completely break down in other recipes,” former employees told Business Insider. “The company didn’t know this until after it shipped.”
Former employees also point to mislabeled ingredients on product labels—a small difference between lemon juice and lemon juice concentrate, but one that’s technically inaccurate, which goes against FDA guidelines.
There are other claims still about changing severance package details on already signed employee contracts, and inappropriate relationships between Tetrick, 35, and female employees. Josh Tetrick responded to the claims here.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking for a dairy-free and egg-free mayonnaise product, Hampton Creek certainly fits that description. So does the Vegenaise brand of products and the less common, but still beloved, Nayonaise. While Hampton Creek’s mayo is free from genetically modified ingredients, it’s not organic. (Vegenaise makes an organic mayo product if you’re looking.)
The price point on Hampton Creek’s Just Mayo is lower than Vegenaise, but still higher than traditional mayo. (A 30-ounce jar retails for about $10).
And when it comes to flavor—that’s certainly a personal decision. I’ve tried all vegan mayonnaise products available and find Vegenaise to have the best flavor and consistency, though I’m not going to turn down a sandwich with Just Mayo on it. I do, however, find it to be a little gummier in texture than the clean mouth feel of Vegenaise.
When it comes to ethics, Hampton Creek is clearly not as picture-perfect as it has tried to make itself out to be. But those values in companies, just like individuals, are truly rare. As a young brand with a firm mission, there’s still a lot of time for Hampton Creek and Tetrick to sort out any ill behavior and misconduct, and put the brand on the path to really and truly changing the world for the better. At the very least, we can expect to look forward to a pretty decent sandwich or two.
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