Avoiding GMO Foods? Bad News for Hellmann's

Submitted by GMO Inside on

Health-conscious people avoid it and few people admit to using it, but it always turns up at a summertime cookout, picnic, or potluck…mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is a staple in dishes like potato salad, coleslaw, and the beloved deviled egg. Some people even mix it with ketchup and put it on hot dogs, or use it alone on French fries. Made mostly of oil, eggs, and vinegar, mayo is the ever-present guest at your summertime gathering. With 31 percent market share in the US (and 52% in Canada), Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise is the likely brand in your potato salad. Other similar culprits may include Duke’s, Miracle Whip, Kraft, and Heinz. But there's a special ingredient lurking in your Hellmann's mayo that you should know about...GMOs.

Hellmann’s, acquired by Unilever in 2000, just celebrated its 100th anniversary as America’s most popular mayonnaise. Its main competitor, Miracle Whip (owned by Kraft), was introduced as a cheaper alternative during the Depression Era. Because Miracle Whip used powdered eggs instead of whole eggs, it lost the “real” appeal to consumers, since “real” mayonnaise could only contain whole eggs, vinegar, and olive oil. Hellmann’s used this as a key marketing tactic against Miracle Whip for a long time, promoting its own truly “real” mayonnaise and getting a leg up on the competition.

As the years have gone by, we have seen a growing separation between the ingredients used in Hellmann’s mayo and its marketed image of their “real” product. The company’s latest advertising campaign co-opts the sustainable food movement by asking customers to consider supporting local farmers, and starting a home garden rather than focus on the product itself. Alison Leung, Unilever’s foods marketing director, said, “We gave [consumers] an idea to buy into.”  The reality of Hellmann’s is clearly far from its clever marketing campaign.

What is the “Real” Problem with Hellmann’s?

Hellmann’s used to take great pride in its “real” ingredients. Now, Hellmann’s mayonnaise is made with less-than wholesome ingredients produced in ways that put people, animals, pollinators, and the planet at risk. Half of the ingredients are likely produced from genetically modified (GMO) crops. The eggs are also sourced from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), commonly referred to as factory farms.

The actual list of ingredients in Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise are (those that are likely directly or indirectly GMOs are bold): soybean oil, water, whole eggs and egg yolks, vinegar, salt, sugar, lemon juice, calcium disodium EDTA (used to protect quality), natural flavors.

Concerns about GMOs

The reality: Hellmann’s “Real” Mayonnaise is nothing like the product offered 100 years ago, and the current version is bad for people and the planet. GMOs and growing herbicide resistance have increased the use of toxic chemicals on crops, polluting our soil and water and posing a significant negative environmental impact. Corporate control of GMOs hurts small farmers. The biotech and chemical corporations spend millions to support anti-labeling efforts and keep consumers in the dark about their food. There are also health risks. GMOs are not yet proven safe for human health—the FDA does not require independent testing of GE foods, allowing for many of the studies on GMOs to be industry-funded and heavily biased.

Among the list of ingredients in Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise, the following products are of particular concern:

  • Soybean oil: 93 percent of soy in the US is GMO
  • Sugar: 54 percent of sugar sold in the US is from sugar beets, of which over 90 percent are GMO
  • Vinegar: Made from corn, of which 89 percent is GMO
  • Eggs: Laying hens (egg-producing chickens) are fed GMO corn and soy
  • Natural flavors: A nebulous term that includes many ingredients that people don’t consider to be natural

Concerns about Eggs and CAFOs

Corporate and Geographic Consolidation

Gone are the days of pastures, barns, field crops, and farm animals. Eggs are produced in industrial operations with hundreds of thousands of laying hens in each facility, growing by nearly 25 percent from 1997 to 2007. Nearly half of egg production is concentrated in five states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, California, and Pennsylvania. Egg operations have grown in size by 50 percent in the same ten-year period, averaging 750,000 hens per factory farm. Though headquartered in Mississippi, Cal-Maine is the largest egg producer in the United States, selling 685 million dozen eggs in 2007 with a flock of 23 million hens.

Animal Welfare

The manner in which laying hens are raised directly affects their wellbeing and health. Egg-laying hens are subjected to mutilation, confinement, and deprivation of the ability to live their lives as the active, social beings they are. More than 90 percent of eggs in the US are produced in confinement conditions. Welfare abuses run rampant in egg CAFOs including: killing male chicks upon hatching because they have no value to the egg industry, debeaking young female chicks causing severe pain, living in battery cages with the equivalent of less than a sheet of paper of floor size, being subjected to a process called “forced molting” where hens are starved and deprived of food for up to two weeks to shock their bodies into the next egg-laying cycle, and slaughtering them after their egg production declines in 1-2 years even though the lifespan of an industry chicken would be 5-8 years.

There is growing concern about the living conditions in which food animals are raised; however, there is little oversight when it comes to product labels, as we have recently seen in the news regarding the label “natural”.The majority of egg labels have no official standards or oversight or enforcement mechanisms, nor much relevance to animal welfare. Labels include: cage-free, free-range, free-roaming, pasture-raised, certified organic, vegetarian-fed, and more. The highest-welfare eggs come pasture-raised with certification from Animal Welfare Approved. Unfortunately, few farms are certified to this standard. Check out the organization’s mobile app to find products near you.

Even certified organic is not without flaws. According to a report by Cornucopia, industrial-scale organic egg producers, with facilities holding as many as 85,000 hens each, provide 80 percent of the organic eggs on the market. This means that less than half of a percent of egg-laying hens in this country are on pasture-based farms. Therefore, it is important to dig deeper and do research into the company. Local producers offer a shorter supply chain and more transparency.

Hellmann’s claims to be committed to using cage-free eggs in its products, with a portion of their eggs currently cage-free and a mission to use 100 percent cage-free eggs by 2020. Rather than using Animal Welfare Approved certification, the company opted for American Humane Certified where forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. To qualify as “cage-free”, the birds must be kept uncaged inside barns–but may still be kept indoors at all times.

Public and Environmental Health

Poor living conditions directly impact public and environmental health. Large-scale factory farm operations produce more than just that little white orb used in baking recipes and for brunch dishes; they are also breeding grounds for disease and pollution.

Large hen facilities house hundreds of thousands of animals in each structure and result in Salmonella poisoning of eggs. Due to a Salmonella outbreak in 2010 where close to 2,000 cases in three months were reported, the US experienced the largest shell egg recall in historyhalf a billion eggs. While Salmonella rates are higher in battery cage systems, it is still a problem for cage-free facilities due to the sheer number of hens living in such close quarters.

As seen in other factory farm operations for pigs and cows, chicken CAFOs produce higher levels of waste than can be disposed of in a timely and environmentally responsible manner. The imbalance of a large number of animals in an increasingly smaller space causes mountains of fecal matter to pile up. Ammonia levels increase, negatively impacting air quality by creating particles inhaled by animals and people and producing unpleasant odors. Elevated ammonia levels also negatively impact water quality, running off into local streams and rivers. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), ammonia can be carried more than 300 miles through the air before returning to the ground and then into waterways. The nutrients in runoff from animal waste can then cause algal blooms, which use up the water’s oxygen supply killing all aquatic life, leading to “dead zones.” Dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico are growing larger every year, in addition to those along the East Coast.

In addition to having a devastating impact on aquatic life, industrial egg production also contributes to climate change. After assessing the lifecycle of eggs from “cradle-to-grave” production, the Environmental Working Group reported that consuming two extra-large eggs is equivalent to driving a car more than one mile.

Unilever and the Grocery Manufacturers Association

Not only is Hellmann’s mayonnaise made of bad ingredients, but its parent company, Unilever, has its own tainted history. Unilever gave $467,100 dollars to GMO anti-labeling forces in California in 2012. Though the company stepped back from the fight against labeling by not contributing directly to “No on 522” in Washington in 2013, the company is still a dues-paying member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). Currently, the GMA, Snack Food Association, International Dairy Foods Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers are suing the state of Vermont for recently passing a mandatory GMO labeling law.

Additional Resources

In the coming week, GMO Inside will release a mayonnaise scorecard showing how various brands measure up in terms of GMO ingredients, prevalence of eggs from CAFOs, and sustainability. Within the scorecard we will offer better alternatives and highlight which brands to avoid. We will also post recipes for making homemade mayonnaise (vegan and non-vegan) to give consumers the ultimate ability to control the quality of ingredients used to make the ever-present spread. Stay tuned!

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