Flash in the Pan 

The mayo of record

Mayonnaise is the top-selling condiment in the nation, and is on a trajectory to overtake soy sauce on the world stage. The reasons behind this popularity are the subject of much speculation—by me, anyway. While the goodness of mayo largely boils down to the fats and flavors it delivers, there's a lot of nuance in mayo's special kind of appeal.

No mayonnaise has more appeal than Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise. Known as Best Foods in the western U.S., Hellmann's offers the world's most popular brand of mayo. A pioneer among mayonnaises, Hellmann's is a creamy, tangy conqueror of bellies, hearts and nations. For many of the world's mayo lovers, Hellmann's provides something like a home: Consumers may experiment, making their own or buying boutique brands, but they'll always come back to Hellmann's in their hours of need.

So it stands to reason that if one really wants to understand why mayo is so popular, one should understand Hellmann's. Having just celebrated its 100th birthday last year, Hellmann's is the nation's—and the world's—oldest commercially produced mayo, just edging out Duke's, which was established in 1917. It remains a favorite in the South, but its distribution elsewhere is scarce.

Part of Hellmann's popularity can be attributed to its sheer market dominance, explains Dr. Debra Zellner, a food psychologist at Montclair State University.

"People tend to be a bit neophobic (are afraid of new foods) and like the familiar (the more familiar the better)," she wrote via email.

Advertisers are all too aware of this. They know that if they hook someone on a product early on, they might keep them for a lifetime, and even pass along their preferences.

While this is most certainly true in the case of Hellmann's, it didn't become the world's favorite mayo by accident.

Joanne Seltsam is a professional taster with Sensory Spectrum, Inc., a consulting firm. She considers Hellmann's a rare, high-quality product, a member of an exclusive group of products that are so refined and sophisticated that it's hard for the average palate to break them down into their component flavors.

"The tribute to Hellmann's is that it is so difficult for even a trained person to break down, to find the line between where one attribute stops and the other starts," Seltsam said. "Hellmann's is just so interwoven that tasters have a very difficult time saying anything other than 'it tastes like mayonnaise.'"

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

"Hellmann's is the perfect gateway mayonnaise," said Scott Jones, chef de cuisine at No. 9 Park in Boston. A mayo-loving chef, Jones dresses up many of his dishes with customized versions of the special crème.

"When I make mayonnaise at work, when it comes out looking like Hellmann's, I know I've done it correctly," he said.

Using a Hellmann's-like base as a point of departure, Jones proceeds to dress it up. It may end up as sherry aioli, plankton saffron mayo or some other whimsical, delectable flavor. I asked him what it is about Hellmann's that makes it so special in the hearts of so many mayo lovers.

"[Its] perfection is largely derived from its consistency, texture and sweetness," Jones said. "Always the same, the texture is similar to pudding, and it is always a touch sweeter than I expect it to be. All of which makes it immeasurably approachable."

This approachability, as he calls it, is key. Because for all of the seemingly boundless love we have for mayo, a significant portion of the population despises it with a passion. Thus, the extent to which it's possible to make mayo less offensive is as important, from a sales perspective, as making it delicious.

In the case of Hellmann's, there is no taste of oxidized oil. It's not too sweet or sour, but neither is it bland. It has personality, zing and the inscrutable quality known as "amplitude." In a 2010 New Yorker piece on ketchup, Malcolm Gladwell wrote that amplitude is "the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that 'bloom' in the mouth. ... When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt."

Seltsam compares Hellmann's amplitude to that of Coca-Cola: Both are flavors that many can identify but few can describe.

I wondered if Hellmann's, like Coke, is made according to some special, closely guarded secret that is crucial to its success. I reached out to Unilever, which owns Hellmann's/Best Foods, in hopes they would divulge or at least acknowledge such a secret. No dice.

"Hellmann's is simply a recipe that people want to eat," wrote Hellmann's senior marketing director Brian Orlando in an email. " ...After a century, we're pretty proud to say that slight recipe tweaks have been made throughout the years, but eggs, oil and vinegar have always been three primary ingredients in Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise."

I'm sure some food industry executives would be curious as to what those "slight tweaks" were. Whatever it is they're doing behind closed doors at Unilever, they're hitting the spot, while others are missing by a mile.

"Once I really needed mayonnaise in a pinch, and was at Whole Foods," Jones recounted. "[I] got their, whatever they have there, canola-based ... I don't know what it is, but it was the only kind that they have there and it was terrible. It was disgusting."

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