Mayonnaise - Good or Bad?

Our Love-Hate Relationship with our Most Popular Condiment

Mayonnaise and Vegetables
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In the United States, we seem to have a love-hate relationship with mayonnaise. It's the best-selling condiment in North America, and it's on or in a whole lot of foods. Sandwiches and tuna salad are classics, and everything from deviled eggs to tartar sauce has mayonnaise as a key ingredient.

On the other hand, mayonnaise has definitely acquired a bad reputation. Mostly, we are warned that it is very unhealthy: for example, WebMD rated it number one on it's "Worst Foods in Your Fridge" list.

People also worry that it will acquire dangerous bacteria. Other people say they are disgusted with the texture (presumably, those people also don't eat yogurt, pudding, or mustard).

So what is the truth about mayonnaise? Is it really that bad for us? The truth may be the type of answer that many people dread: "it depends."

What is Mayonnaise?

Mayonnaise is actually a sort of magical substance. It is almost all oil, combined with a bit of egg yolk, a bit little acidic liquid, such as lemon juice or vinegar, and often (at least in homemade mayo) mustard. But those ingredients whip up into something unlike any of the ingredients alone.

If it's Almost All Oil, How Can Mayonnaise Be a Solid?

This is the magic part. Mayonnaise is a solid due to a process called emulsification, which is a method of combining two substances that would otherwise tend run away from each other: oil and water.

For emulsification to happen, we need molecules (called emulsifiers) which have a hydrophilic (water-loving) part and a lipophilic (oil-loving) part.

In this way, the emulsifier can bind to molecules of both types, and bring them together. In homemade mayonnaise, the emulsifiers are mainly the lecithin in the egg yolk and a similar substance in mustard. Commercial brands of mayonnaise can use other types of emulsifiers and stabilizers.

The other thing required to turn oil into mayo is that it needs to be beaten into very small droplets as the emulsification process happens.

At home, this can be done using a whisk or blender. (One source claims that a tablespoon of oil can be broken up into 30 billion particles with a whisk.)

Is Mayonnaise Bad for You?

The main complaint about mayonnaise usually comes down to one thing: it is "full of fat." True, it is almost entirely fat (though not, of course, saturated fat, since it's made from liquid oil). Complaint #2: it has calories. Yes. Yes, it does, at about 100 calories per tablespoon. (This is a whole other subject, but in my opinion if you are worried about excess calories the first thing to do is to make sure the foods you eat aren't making you hungrier.) Weirdly, though, the same health writers will often go on to recommend olive oil as a healthy alternative. Which, of course, is also fat and has 124 calories per tablespoon. So go figure. (Olive oil has other wonderful properties, but that's a separate issue from fat and calories.)

Healthy or not? It's all about the oil. Almost any edible oil can be used to make mayonnaise, so the oil itself is the biggest factor in the healthfulness of the recipe. In the United States, most commercial mayonnaise is made with soy oil, which some experts feel is problematic due to its high levels of omega-6 fats (I personally avoid oils high in omega-6 fats).

Interestingly, the best-selling commercial mayonnaise in the U.S. (Hellman's brand in the east/Best Foods in the west) sells mayo made from soy oil in the U.S. but mayo made from canola oil in Canada. Canola oil has much less omega-6 fat in it than soy oil.
Of course, if you make the mayonnaise yourself, you can use any kind of oil you want, including olive oil.

What About Bacteria?

The concern about bacteria is mainly rooted in the fact that homemade mayonnaise is usually made with raw egg yolk. Commercial mayonnaise is not normally a problem because it is made with pasteurized eggs and is produced in such a way as to keep it safe.

If the potato salad made you sick, it was most likely not the mayo that did the deed. All mayonnaise is acidic, which also helps keep bacteria at bay. In fact, two fun facts:

What About Reduced-Fat Mayonnaise?

The less fat in the mayonnaise, the more ingredients are added to improve texture and flavor. Starches and sugars are two ingredients that are commonly added. Still, if calories are a concern for you, you may feel the tradeoffs are worth it.

Bottom Line

With careful selection and/or preparation, mayonnaise can be a helpful addition to a low-carb diet.

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