How the "Mayo Wars" and “Food Tech” May Change the Way We Eat


We love those stories where the little guy wins. We love it even more when the big guy started it. That’s the case in the harrowing tale of Unilever’s cease and desist order to startup Hampton Creek and its product “Just Mayo,” which ended with soaring sales for the small time mayonnaise maker and a PR nightmare for the billion-dollar conglomerate (which includes Breyer’s, Dove, and particularly important to this story, Hellman’s).

Hampton Creek’s product is a pea-protein-based mayo substitute. But Hampton Creek is not billing it as a substitute, and by calling it “Just Mayo,” Hellman’s claims, consumers are being misled because mayonnaise, by USDA definition, should contain eggs. The stuff is super-popular, so Hellman’s is claiming “unfair” competition for Unilever.

Right. . . Halweil describes the outpouring of support that the lawsuit garnered for the “underdog” Hampton Creek. “Foodtech” companies (those that are using a data/science approach to food creation--and not GMOs) are a growing sector and may be an answer to creating a more sustainable food system. Brian Halweil recounts the tale in Edible Manhattan:

Now, the food movement hasn’t just heard about startups like Hampton Creek. It has found an ally with a common enemy: industrial food production. As Kate Murphy wrote in a New York Times opinion piece on the rapidly growing foodtech space (investors plowed in $4 billion in the first half of 2014 alone), ‘despite their radically different approaches, the high- and low-tech culinary camps share a common desire to create a more sustainable food supply and, less loftily, to capitalize on people’s appetites.’”

Halweil explains that to develop "Just Mayo", a small and smart team of techies, biochemists and chefs all worked in close quarters, running cloud-based food experiments and mining data on the genetic makeup of different Canadian yellow pea cultivars to find the best and cheapest protein source for making the mayo. Halweil reflects on the new approach to food creation:

The power of bringing this Silicon Valley approach to food echoes a prescient op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “Software is Eating the World” (and updated in a slideshow) in which tech pioneer and investor Marc Andressen argued that more and more business are “being run on software and delivered as online services,” allowing them to deliver entertainment, healthcare, even food, cheaper, faster and better than existing firms, with a fraction of the staffing and capital.”

In his talk at the NY Times Food For Tomorrow Conference, Hampton Creek founder and CEO Josh Tetrick explained how the company’s philosophy is to change the current system that pumps out unhealthy food at cheap prices. “Some of this sh*%*y food tastes good,” he says, as he explain why people buy it knowing that it may cause health problems down the road. Their goal (at which they are succeeding, apparently) is to use data, science and tech to change the food space and figure out how to make sustainable food delicious and cheap. Will food tech be the future of the food movement? We’ll stay tuned.

ART: courtesy of Hampton Creek’s Facebook


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson



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