Ketchup: Way More Than You Need To Know About It

Labor Day weekend brings hamburgers, hot dogs, barbecued chicken, cole slaw, some baked beans, chips and salsa (and perhaps guacamole), ice cream, beer, lemonade ... well, we can go on quite awhile with this list. Every one of these foods has a fascinating history (except for maybe the baked beans), as do all of the condiments used -- like, say, ketchup, which 97% of American kitchens are stocked with. Each one of us, in fact, consumes on average three bottles of the stuff a year.

Did you know that, like wines, there are good and bad ketchup years determined by the tomato harvest? Neither did I, but now that I do, I think it's high time someone introduced vintage ketchup with the year printed on the label.

Even though you're all very familiar with ketchup, there's probably a whole lot you don't know about it.

Ketchup comes from kê-chiap, a spicy, pickled, anchovy-based fish sauce popular in China in the 17th-century. From there it spread to the Malay states, which is where British seamen discovered it, brought it home, and Anglicized the name to ketchup. It wasn't until the late 1700s that someone in New England thought to add tomatoes to the recipe. In those days, Americans were suspicious of tomatoes -- many thought they were poisonous. But by 1876, when the F. & J. Heinz Company of Pennsylvania processed and infused the tomatoes with vinegar, spices, and sweetener and sold it in bottles, folks were more apt to try it.

"Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household!" blared the original Heinz slogan, which referenced the laborious process necessary for making it at home. Ketchup became popular in 19th century American homes, but it was the banning of sodium benzoate in the early 20th century that likely propelled the condiment to its present iconic status. Commercial ketchups in the early years were culled from unripe tomatoes low in pectin, so it was a thinner sauce and relied on sodium benzoate as a preservative.

​Harvey W. Wiley, known as "the father of the Food and Drug Administration," challenged the safety of the preservative, which led to its banning in the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Heinz and fellow ketchup entrepreneurs started using ripe tomatoes and pickling them to a greater extent, which eliminated the need for sodium benzoate and also greatly improved the taste. By 1907, Heinz was selling 12 million bottles of ketchup per year. Nowadays the company sells some 650 million bottles a year.

Perhaps the lowest point in this condiment's history came in October 2000, when Heinz rolled out a line of artificially colored EZ Squirt ketchups in green, pink, purple, blue, orange, and teal. By 2006 they were gone.

Other fun facts:

  • Heinz sells 11 billion single serve packets of ketchup per year. That averages out to two packets for every person on the planet.
  • Ketchup falls from a Heinz glass bottle at .028 miles per hour. According to the Heinz website, the best way to release the ketchup faster is to "apply a firm tap to the sweet spot on the neck of the bottle -- the '57'." The company also slyly notes that only 11% of the public know this trick.
  • The acid in ketchup purportedly makes it effective for removing tarnish from copper pots.

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