Truthiness and real food: Hellman’s, get your paws off our framing

What does "real food" mean to you?

To me, it’s this creamy, colloidal beige stuff, made in a giant factory, that’s shelf-stable for months at room temperature. I like to stir a good dollop of it into dolphin-sacrificing, mercury-laden tuna and eat it on some Ritz crackers washed down with a Diet Coke.

OK, not really. But that was often my lunch a few years ago, during my overworked dot-com days. However, even then I didn’t think it was "real" food.

Last week I received an email from a professional at a world-renowned advertising agency about a new campaign for his client Hellman’s Mayonnaise. (On the West Coast it’s sold under the Best Foods brand.) He said they wanted to hear my thoughts on real food. If they liked my description, they’d feature the post on the Yahoo Food site they’d set up, where "celebrity chef" Dave Lieberman is blogging and posting videos about Americans and real food. In case I was worried that they just wanted to help me advertise mayonnaise, oh no.

"Our aim is not to get you to talk about Hellmann’s or mayo, but to get your authentic view on what ‘real food’ means to you so we can share it as part of our site," said the email. "To that end, your post does NOT have to mention our campaign or anything about Hellmann’s."

Guess that wasn’t in Chef Dave’s deal. In his introductory video segment for the Yahoo Food site, he seems nice, very guy-next-door-with-barbecue-tongs who’s just so gosh-darn excited to be "partnering up" with Hellman’s because "they care about real food just as much as I do!"

In a scene with background music that just screams "touching moment," Dave talks about how to him, real food "is a combination of food that’s cooked with passion, connected to a person or a memory of some time" … like the lemon sponge cake Dave’s grandmother who died before he could meet her liked to bake and give away; this cake is now Dave’s dad’s only tangible connection to his mother.

Other people on the street Dave interviews tell him real food is cornbread, or vegetables, or bison burgers

"Completely in season, right from the farm stand to your plate."

"Fresh produce."

"Free-range meat."

Hey wait a second — that’s what I think! Who are these people and do they know they’re in a Hellman’s mayonnaise ad campaign?


The video is part of a multimillion-dollar effort the company kicked off in April to promote "the freshness of ingredients in Hellmann’s," reported the Wall Street Journal (free article). The Journal says that Unilever, the $10 billion conglomerate that owns the Hellman’s/Best Foods brands along with Ben & Jerry’s and a bunch of others, pitched the "show" to the Food Network, but couldn’t reach a deal because the network "didn’t feel comfortable making a show with the amount of integrated branding" that Hellmann’s wanted.

The official press release, meanwhile, mentions that the Web-based series is the first to be executive-produced by Food Network star-chef Bobby Flay. "’In Search of Real Food’ is a programming concept that captures the fast- changes [sic] taking place within the food industry — the emphasis on local-grown and real foods — as well as the changes within the entertainment industry," it quoted Flay. "Finding new ways to reach consumers using interactivity is where the future of programming will be, and this show sets a new standard for consumer engagement."

I’ll say. I am completely engaged. Perhaps not in the way they wanted. Reminds me a bit of how I felt when McDonald’s put little toy Hummers in its Happy Meals.

According to the Journal, Unilever will spend $1 million to $2 million in ads on Yahoo to promote the "Real Food" show; Hellmann’s spent about $30 million on advertising last year total. Funny — that’s about how much ($32 million) the federal government is willing to spend on the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program, which helps farmers nationwide market their actual, grown-in-the-dirt food, not food products, to consumers, according to the latest Farm Bill markup released Saturday by House Ag Chair Collin Peterson. Over five years.


So far, no bloggers seem to have taken the bait, as there’s no "post of the week" up yet on the Yahoo Food site and no one has tagged any images on Flickr with "realfoodgallery" as Dave says to do in his blog. My friend Derrick at Obsession with Food did offer a few choice words in response to the same email, while Colleen at hipstraights jokes, "Are we considering condiments food now?" Even Food Network junkie Mike at TV Food Fan tempered his enthusiasm for Dave’s new gig with, "I’m guessing that we won’t get a tutorial on how to make your own mayo at home." Weirdly, he followed that mildly critical comment with this cowering "Ed. note": "I don’t mean to sound like I’m ragging on Hellman’s. Theirs is the best brand available and I see absolutely no need to may [sic] my own mayo at home. I guarantee a bout of salmonella would be my reward for even trying."

Mike, that’s exactly what they want you to think. It’s quite easy to make, whether you do so by hand or an immersion blender or even with an electric drill — especially with good eggs, like those you’ll find at a farmers market. I, however, have only made it a few times, along with aioli. My husband goes through mayonnaise by the quart, so I buy it at the grocery store. I’m not saying the Spectrum Organics brand we buy now is actually any more "real" than Hellman’s/Best Foods; Spectrum is owned by the Hain’s Group, another multimillion-dollar publicly held conglomerate. But it does at least taste a little closer to homemade.

What’s keeping me up so late with annoyance is the insidious way that Hellman’s/Best Foods is trying to co-opt the idea of real food by velcro-ing their manufactured "foodlike product" to it in this smarmy marketing campaign. It’s factory food: sterile, shelf-stable, and the "natural flavors" it mostly tastes like come from another factory, one that makes chemical compounds that mimic real food.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about what "real food" actually does mean to me, because I think it’s an idea worth defending. I’d love to read your versions, too.

…Just not on Hellman’s Yahoo! Food site.


12 Responsesto “Truthiness and real food: Hellman’s, get your paws off our framing”

  1. Peter aka Nosher of the North says:

    I saw this email and thought about writing a post similar to this one, but I didn’t do it because I see far too many advertising/marketing/branding/brainwashing efforts like the Hellman’s concept and decided to try and focus my anger and frustration on positive things.

    I am so glad you wrote this post! I do not eat Hellman’s and I couldn’t believe that they were trying this. The sad thing is that it will probably succeed because many people will relate the concept of “real food” to their childhood memories and consequently relate “nostalgia” to Hellman’s if their mothers served them that particular brand as they were growing up.

    This makes me want to make my own mayo…and I may…once or twice…then I’ll probably revert to my current habit of alternating between whatever Canadian organic brand of mayo I can find and Duke’s Mayonnaise – whenever my mom can smuggle me a jar back from the south.

    Maybe we should all post entries their site in an attempt to close it down. It might work, but then again, it might not…


    PS: Does mayonnaise really need to be made with modified corn starch, high fructose corn syrup, xantham gum, phosphoric acid, and artificial flavours?

  2. Jack says:

    Thanks for showing the label! Gosh, “real food” has GMO Soybean oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup and a host of ingredients not found in any mayonnaise recipe I’ve ever seen? What are the people at Best Foods smoking? Oh yeah, just greed once again.

    Note to all: Any product with the word “Light” in it is not real food. Ever.

  3. The photo of the ingredients list cuts off before the meaning of the double asterisks is revealed. I went to the Best Foods website and found that they indicate “INGREDIENTS NOT IN MAYONNAISE.” Somewhere there must be a regulation that defines what comprises “real mayonnaise” and specifies what to do with ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.

    Note that the non-light mayo does not have any of these asterisks in its ingredients list.

    I wonder if any of their featured “real food” recipes use the light mayo…

  4. Marc & Peter, yes – I forgot to mention that the term “mayonnaise” is indeed regulated by the FDA’s Standard of Identity, and those ingredients are starred because they are not part of that definition, ie, they don’t need to be part of mayonnaise. They do only if you’re removing the fat but want to maintain flavor. This site explains that the FDA standard defines mayonnaise as “at least 65% oil by weight, vinegar, and egg or egg yolks. Spices and other natural seasonings may added with the exception of turmeric and saffron. These would give the mayonnaise a yellow hue and thus appear to contain added egg yolks.” (The same site also includes some fun graphics describing how mayonnaise is made in the factory.)

    Marc, you are also correct that the full-fat version, which I did not include, does not contain those asterisked ingredients. Its list: SOYBEAN OIL, WATER, WHOLE EGGS AND EGG YOLKS, VINEGAR, SALT, SUGAR, LEMON JUICE, CALCIUM DISODIUM EDTA (USED TO PROTECT QUALITY), NATURAL FLAVORS (found here by clicking on the product image).

    Sounds simple and real, right? Those who read “Fast Food Nation” might recall just how “natural” those “natural flavors” are likely to be. And for those who haven’t, well, here’s the relevant chapter in a handy PDF. It’s fascinating.

    Again, I don’t think Hellman’s isn’t any worse than any other food-product manufacturer trying to jump on our sustainable, organic, local, and ethical bandwagon. “Making it from scratch,” if it ever became the norm again, would be a real threat to their bottom line.

    Although I guess it might be tough to make “light mayo” from scratch.

  5. jacqueline says:

    I’m getting really tired of the homogenized offerings on the mind-numbing FoodNetwork. This Hellman’s Informercial programming is just the latest example of the increasing mediocrity of their shows. Do we need one more guy trying to gross us out by eating weird food? One more Giada celebration of her family vacations in paradise? Nothing against Hellman’s (homemade is so easy though! and even if not low-fat, you can choose better fat!) but the network should at least be honest about their programming…

  6. Lia del Rancho says:

    I worked in a Unilever food-like product factory quality control lab for a few years in the eighties. I’m sure I must have signed a non-disclosure of some sort, so let me just say this – punch ‘em once for me, Bonnie!

  7. Mike says:


    You’re criticism of my point is well taken, although I would say that the reason I’m not making my own may is .1% health concerns and 99.9% laziness on my part. And, frankly, I use mayo so rarely that the jar in my refrigerator probably dates from the late 90s. And, yes, it is Hellman’s

    Coming at this from my site’s point of view, the interesting thing is that a reputable food personality is lending his authority and good name to a product like this.

    My disclaimer was put in the original post because I wanted to point out that the discussion wasn’t about Hellman’s per se. I understand and can appreciate your position on this issue, but I didn’t feel that the positive and/or negative aspects of the mayo in question was germane to to my post about food celebrity and endorsements, so I wanted to take it out of the equation, lest it muddy the waters.

    TV Food Fan

  8. shelly says:

    Yeah but… for so many Americans, it seems, “real food” is inextricably linked to the fake foods with which they grew up. I grew up thinking that Hellman’s was the end all and be all of mayonnaise (to be used in tuna salad only, not, heaven forbid, in a corned beef sandwich). As soon as I tasted homemade mayo and aoli, the Hellman’s jar went straight to the recycling bin.

    To the average American raised on potato chips and Wonder Bread (I’m guessing here), factory-produced mayonnaise may as well be “real food.” Several generations have already been raised on fake food such that their food nostalgia often harks back to Grandma’s “homemade” Betty Crocker cake.

    To put it another way, how can you understand the value of a fresh heirloom tomato when your entire tomato experience has been ketchup? This requires thinking outside the Jack in the Box, understanding that there is another way to eat aside from what we see in commercials and magazines.

    It may be too late to ask our grandmothers how they ate, but ethnic greengrocers and farmers markets are a good place to start.

    (I feel as though I’ve just unintentionally paraphrased Michael Pollan. I probably have. Funny that.)

  9. Tana says:

    Bonnie, I went to town on some marketers yesterday and this morning on my blog.

    I stopped just short of leaning out the window and screaming, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” but believe me, I thought about it.

    It’s sort of fun, though, ripping the blinders off people who can’t see what they’re being fed. (So to speak.)

  10. eric says:

    I liked what you had to say on your blog yesterday. Good stuff.

    I thought the old slogan went “Bring out the best foods, bring out the GMO soybean oil and factory farmed eggs.” No? At least I thought that’s how the commercial went… :)


  11. Kerry says:

    I make my own mayonnaise all the time. I’m also incredibly lazy, but I use a Cuisinart (or a hand-mixer) and it’s pretty much one of the easiest things I do in my kitchen. I store the mayo in an air-tight mason jar, and keep it for up to a week. I use oils like macadamia nut oil and sunflower seed oil, which are far and away better than soybean oil. This mayo is delicious, and it proves that avoiding products like Hellmann’s is easier than they would like you to think.

  12. tasha says:

    You know… i called the phone number on the side of a Best Foods mayonaise jar and they could not tell me what “natural flavorings” consisted of. I said that i am a vegetarian and wanted to know if it consisted of a meat or animal product. She said that she advises me not to use the product if I insist to know because a consumer does not have authority to ask! They want to feed this to me but i cannot ask what is in it!!!!!!!!!
    I am so MAD
    Mayonaise is not healthy… i know that… but you cannot tell me what i am eating!