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The Fishy, Ambiguous and Poisonous History of America’s Most Revered Condiment, Ketchup

Did you know the first ketchups didn’t use tomatoes at all? The condiment has a murky history and a vague definition.

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Chase Pellerin

Ketchup is not America’s most consumed condiment — a recent Euromonitor study shows that mayonnaise holds that title, handily. However, the sweet-and-savory red sauce is arguably the country’s most beloved condiment. It’s found in nearly every American diner, road-side burger joint and, according to Pure Ketchup: The History of America’s National Condiment by Andrew F. Smith, in 97 percent of American households. Ketchup is as American as cola, potato chips and even apple pie. Yet the condiment’s origins aren’t American at all. And what’s even more surprising: traditional ketchups didn’t even use tomato.

“If you go to a Vietnamese restaurant, they’ll serve a fermented fish sauce,” says Smith, author of the aforementioned book. “That’s what ketchup was probably originally like. Historically, a ketchup is a single ingredient that’s spiced, as opposed to a sauce, which, at least in theory, means multiple ingredients with spices.” According to Smith, the first ketchups were sauces made from fermented fish or fermented soy beans, which came from southeast Asia. In China they would have been called “kê-tsiap”, and in Malaysia they would have been called either “kechap” or “ketjap”.

“When canning, they’d cut out any rotten piece or blemished tomato, the core, whatever they didn’t like, and they’d throw all the remaining stuff into barrels to sit and ferment. That’s what they’d make into ketchup.”

In the 17th century, the British were introduced to ketchup while trading. They brought the fermented sauce back to England, and soon started experimenting with different types of ketchups: walnut, mushroom, oyster, lemon, celery, plum and peach. “The idea of ketchup is to preserve anything that’s in a large quantity at a particular time,” says Smith. Especially in a country like Britain, which has a short growing season and imports much of its goods, people had to find ways to preserve food for months.

While the British were turning various fruits, nuts and vegetables into ketchups, tomato ketchup didn’t really catch on until the mid-19th century (though according to the 2014 National Geographic article “How Was Ketchup Invented?” the first tomato ketchup recipe was made in 1812). Tomatoes were first imported from South America to Britain in the 16th century, but nobody ate them because they looked so much like nightshade berries, which were poisonous. It’s a touch ironic because tomatoes turned out to be very healthy. They contain an antioxidant called lycopene, which the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) believes may prevent various forms of cancers.

When the British finally started eating tomatoes, they also needed to start preserving them. There were two ways to do that 200 years ago: canning, or making the tomatoes into ketchup. The ketchup they were making wasn’t a premium product, though. “When canning, they’d cut out any rotten piece or blemished tomato, the core, whatever they didn’t like, and they’d throw all the remaining stuff into barrels to sit and ferment,” Smith says. “That’s what they’d make into ketchup.” Before the 20th century, many tomato ketchup manufacturers were also using harmful preservatives like boric acid, formalin and salicylic acid. When the British colonized America, they also brought the idea of ketchup.

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Henry J. Heinz created his tomato ketchup in 1876. But it was a ketchup that had many of the same harmful preservatives used in British ketchups. Determined to make a chemical-free ketchup, Heinz altered the brand’s original recipe (using a combination of vinegar, salt and sugar as preservatives instead) and created the first artificial preservative-free ketchup in 1906. And it was just in time. Soon after, the Food and Drug Act of 1906 was released, which cracked down more strictly on the types of chemicals ketchups could use.

From the start of the 20th century, Heinz ketchup boomed for two reasons. For one, Heinz simply had a superior product. Smith says Heinz didn’t need to do any advertising until the 1970s, and it was only after other companies — like Campbell’s and Hunt’s — started advertising on television that they followed suit. The second reason Heinz boomed: demand. According to Smith, french fries, hot dogs and hamburgers all became part of the American diet at the beginning of the 20th century. Also, barbecue, which uses ketchup as the base layer to many barbecue sauces, grew with the advent of the grill in the 1930s.

“No one can trademark or patent the word ‘ketchup’. You can trademark ‘Heinz tomato ketchup’, or ‘Hunt’s’, or something like that. But as far as I know, anybody can come up with something and call it a ketchup.”

Today, Smith estimates that Heinz controls 60 percent of the total ketchup market, which he says is “exactly what they’ve done for over 100 years”. As for the company’s recipe, it’s a trade secret. He once asked for their exact recipe while visiting Heinz’s manufacturing facility in Pittsburgh. “They just laughed.”

While Heinz has a stranglehold on the tomato ketchup market, they don’t have control over what a ketchup can be. In other words, something can be ketchup even if it doesn’t have the genealogy to prove it. Its origins, which have been passed on by word of mouth over several centuries, are a little suspect, anyway. And its modern definition — a single ingredient that’s spiced — is blatantly ambiguous. “No one can trademark or patent the word ‘ketchup’,” says Smith. “You can trademark Heinz Tomato Ketchup, or Hunt’s, or something like that. But as far as I know, anybody can come up with something and call it a ketchup.”

There’s no doubt Heinz makes a high-quality ketchup that Americans have fallen for. But there’s also a craft movement that has given people the creative license to experiment. Today, as with hot sauces or craft beers, there’s a variety of artisanal ketchups that are all worth of a dip of the french fry. We tried them, and here are our favorites; for the sake of clarity, we’ve benchmarked the flavors against Heinz.

About Our Expert: Andrew F. Smith

Andrew F. Smith teaches Food Studies at the New School University and is a member of the Culinary Historians of New York. He has edited or authored 24 books and written over 1,000 articles on a variety of foods, ranging from sugar to beer, tomatoes and apples. He has been interviewed by numerous publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. To learn more about him, go to his website.

First Field Tomato Ketchup

This New Jersey brand uses tomatoes that are sourced from local farmers. Their ketchup contains no GMO ingredients, is peanut-, soy- and gluten-free and is slow-cooked to preserve the fresh tomato taste. And because their ketchups are seasonal, you have to stock up on them in the summer and fall.

Compared to Heinz: You can taste more of the individual spices in First Field’s ketchup. It’s a little smokey and sweet, and has a slightly looser texture than Heinz.

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Buy Now: $10

Melinda’s Habanero Ketchup

Melinda’s may be better known for hot sauces, but this ketchup is nothing to pass over lightly. Each is made in Costa Rica and contains no artificial preservatives or high-fructose corn syrup — and, since it’s made with habanero peppers, it’s got a kick.

Compared to Heinz: Melinda’s ketchup is spicier than Heinz, although not overwhelmingly so. It’s “an approachable habanero”, according to one of our testers. It has an initial sweetness, but then the spice kicks in soon after.

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Buy Now: $10

Sir Kensington’s Classic Ketchup

This all-natural ketchup is made of crushed tomatoes, raw sugar, green bell peppers, some lime juice and a blend of vinegar and spices. It contains no GMO ingredients.

Compared to Heinz: On the bottle, Sir Kensington’s says it has less sugar and sodium than “the leading national brand” — which appears to be true. And it does taste less salty. One tester thought it had a sweet, jammy quality. But compared with all the other artisan ketchups we tasted, this one was the most similar to Heinz.

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Buy Now: $13

Maya Kaimal Spicy Ketchup

This is an Indian iteration of the great American condiment. It’s made with vine-ripened tomatoes, and then blended with brown sugar, serrano peppers, paprika, salt and several other spices.

Compared to Heinz: This ketchup is chunkier, more salsa-like, than Heinz. It definitely has an Indian flair — think tikka masala sauce.

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Buy Now: $6+

Molonay Tubilderborst Savory Ketchup

This California brand makes old-school ketchups, which are less sweet and more savory and exotic than a squeeze of Heinz. Their three ketchup varieties — savory, spicy and curry — are all unique and made with ripe California tomatoes. The savory ketchup is the sweetest they make.

Compared to Heinz: Like Heinz, this is a good table ketchup — but that’s were the similarities end. Molonay Tubilderborst is chunkier, has stronger tomato and onion flavors, and even has a hint of Old Bay to it.

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Buy Now: $10

Traina California Sun Dried Tomato Ketchup

Traina grows, nourishes, picks and sun dries all their own tomatoes in California. This ketchup blends these sun-dried tomatoes with a variety of spices including distilled vinegar, sugar and salt.

Compared to Heinz: Traina’s ketchup tastes slightly sweeter, and has a stronger tomato flavor than Heinz. It’s also chunkier.

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Buy Now: $10

Sosu Srirachup

This ketchup is made with Early Girl tomatoes and spiced with chili peppers, apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, sea salt and garlic. And, as its name implies, it’s also blended with Sosu’s house-made sriracha.

Compared to Heinz: This has a thinner texture and stronger tomato flavor than Heinz. The sriracha flavor isn’t strong, initially, but kicks in soon.

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Buy Now: ~$8

Stonewall Kitchen Country Ketchup

This small Maine-based company won the award for “Outstanding Product Line” at the 1995 Fancy Food Show. Their ketchup is made in America, is gluten-free, has a chunky texture and, according to one writer of ours, is the “best ketchup I’ve ever tasted.”

Compared to Heinz: The Country Ketchup is definitely on the sweeter side. It has a strong tomato flavor, as well as cloves, and its texture is more similar to salsa than traditional Heinz ketchup.

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Buy Now: $7

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