Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

A more healthful mayonnaise? Maybe

(James M Thresher)
By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's high season for mayonnaise, traditionally featured in summertime sandwiches, pasta salads, deviled eggs and other warm-weather staples.

Although real mayonnaise has fallen out of favor in recent years, snubbed in some circles for delivering 90 calories per tablespoon, all of them from fat, it may be on the rebound. Kraft and Hellman's, the leading national makers, have recently introduced mayonnaise products and upped their marketing efforts, duking it out for their share of the mayo-using public.

The time seems ripe, then, to reevaluate mayonnaise. Is it worth eating? And, if so, is one kind better for you than the others?

In its purest form, mayonnaise is simply egg yolk emulsified with oil; it usually has lemon juice or vinegar tossed in for flavor and to slow bacteria growth and is often seasoned with mustard and salt.

As we came to demonize fat in recent decades, mayonnaise-makers altered that formula to concoct light, reduced-fat and even no-fat versions. That, of course, required adding ingredients such as modified corn starch and xantham gum to replicate mayo's appealing flavor and texture. These mayonnaises generally have far fewer calories than real mayonnaise, in part because many have water as their most plentiful ingredient. (Some mayo-makers list serving sizes in grams; for the record, 13 to 15 grams equals about one tablespoon, depending on the product.)

The fat pendulum has swung the other way, though, with the recognition that plant-based fats such as soybean, canola and olive oil -- all unsaturated fats and sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids -- may benefit the cardiovascular system. Mayonnaise-makers have begun showcasing products made with canola and olive oils, in particular. Those with olive oil typically have water as their most common ingredient, notes Marisa Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. That helps lower those products' calorie counts.

The presence of fat has the added benefit of helping your body absorb certain nutrients including the fat-soluble vitamins E and A that are found in dark green leafy vegetables and orange ones. While most of us get (and store) enough Vitamin A, Vitamin E is a nutrient we don't get enough of, Moore says, though our increased consumption of canola oil may be changing that.

As for mayonnaises that boast that they're excellent sources of those heart-healthy omega fats, Moore notes, "You don't want to look to mayonnaise as a prime source of omegas."

"They might provide some benefit," Moore says of those mayos. But you'd have to eat an outrageous amount, the equivalent of 20 eggs' worth of mayo, to get the same amount of omega fats as an eight-ounce serving of fish provides, she says.

Kathy Kitchens Downie, a registered dietitian and nutrition editor for Cooking Light, says the variety of mayonnaise options allows home cooks to choose the right mayo for the task at hand. If you just need to bind a salad, she says, you can use a reduced-fat mayo to keep calories in check. Or use a full-fat kind and mix it with plain non-fat yogurt, she suggests. For a sandwich, where texture and flavor really count, you might want to splurge on a dab of the full-fat stuff. "It's a trade-off," Downie says.

Moore agrees. "Personally, I do find that using a smaller amount of a better product might impart better flavor and therefore is more satisfying," she says. "But you have to pay attention to portion control. If you do use full-fat, you have to use less. You have to make a decision about which way to go."


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