Remember when the only companies that made purposely-vegan products — think vegan mac and cheese, plant-based mayo, and mock meats — were vegan or vegetarian companies?
When I went vegan in 2012, it was a lot different than it is now. There was essentially one brand for every vegan substitute — Silk for soymilk, Almond Breeze for almondmilk, Earth Balance for butter, Vegenaise or Just Mayo for mayonnaise. I know I’m leaving out some crucial trailblazers in the vegan food space, but you get my point. Each product brought to mind one or two manufacturers, and that was pretty much the entire selection.
Nowadays, it’s very different. Just about every major company found in grocery stores has a vegan version. How many vegan butters and mayos are there? When did Trader Joe’s start making plant-based meats?
I think the variety is great, as I’ve written before, but I’ve started to think maybe we should be intentional about which of these products we purchase. What got me thinking about this is Hellman’s vegan mayo, which recently appeared in my refrigerator.
Why? Because Unilever, Hellman’s parent company, launched a war against Hampton Creek (now Just Inc.)’s Just Mayo back in 2014, when it looked like the plant-based pioneers were going to provide some real competition.
They sued for false advertisement, arguing that “mayo” couldn’t possibly be vegan. And the American Egg Board, a branch of the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service — required by law to avoid denigrating competing products or advance the interests of one manufacturer over others — helped Unilever with all sorts of trickery, including hiring contractors to help keep Just Mayo off shelves at Whole Foods. They even joked about assassinating Hampton Creek’s CEO, Josh Tetrick.
It was, to be frank, a government conspiracy on behalf of animal agriculture and against a vegan company. Many people still don’t know about it today.
So you can imagine my reaction to seeing Hellman’s vegan mayo on store shelves. My applaud for more vegan products was blunted by my memory of their war against one of the first vegan mayo producers.
On the other hand, it’s a good sign to see these companies seeing the writing on the wall. They know that veganism is the future and it’s not worth fighting against, so they may as well create their own vegan products.
But let’s think about what this means. There are some companies out there who have been making quality vegan food for decades, fending off massive animal agriculture corporations to stay in business all these years. And then these corporations make their own plant-based versions of their products to cash in?
I think we owe something to the OGs, those who have been there since before many of us went vegan. In fact, these products may be superior, seeing as how they forced animal agriculture to emulate them to try to prevent them from siphoning away more dollars from their non-vegan products.
I don’t really know the relevant ethical violation, though. I am not sure I subscribe to the argument that we shouldn’t purchase products from companies that also make non-vegan products. In cases where there aren’t alternatives produced by wholly vegan companies, that would mean forgoing certain products, which just isn’t practical. But even in cases where the choice is between purchasing from a vegan company and a non-vegan company that happened to make a vegan product, I am not sure there is an ethical difference.
However, I do feel strongly that we should provide financial support to the trailblazing companies that offered the products that helped make veganism easier for us. If the choice is between Just Mayo and Hellman’s vegan mayo, why the hell not go with the underdog who did the right thing, took on the big guys, and won?
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