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Catching Up With Ketchup

Catching Up With Ketchup

It’s dinnertime in America, and from sea to shining sea one cry rings out: “Pass the ketchup, please!”


When did this craze for Americans’ favorite condiment begin, and is smearing it on just about everything a good thing for our health? We’ve put the squeeze on ketchup to pour out the tangy truth.


A bottle of ketchup can be found in 97 percent of American homes, say the people who track this sort of thing. But our love of ketchup is far from being a newfangled craze. Ketchup has been a hit since it was first introduced to the American kitchen in the 1700s — only back then it wasn’t the tomato-red sauce that we’re familiar with today. In fact, ketchup’s origins are actually quite fishy.


Ge-tchup To Go

People have used sauces to enhance the flavor of their food — and hide the taste of less-than-fresh meats and fish — for a very long time. For instance, during the Talmudic era the Romans often used sauces to add interest to their dishes. However, linguistically at least, most food historians believe that ketchup’s origins can be traced back not to the Romans but to the Far East. The Chinese had a long tradition of spicing up their food with a fermented fish sauce that they called ge-thcup or koe-cheup. In addition to the tangy taste, the sauce had another advantage: It could be stored for a long period of time. Therefore, when British traders began doing business in the Orient in the early 1700s, they stored the flavorful sauce on their ships and brought it home.


Inventive British cooks began experimenting with the sauce and soon “ketchup” was being made from all sorts of things, including shellfish, mushrooms, walnuts, and even fruits such as peaches and plums. One thing it was not made from was tomatoes, since many Englishmen thought this vegetable was poisonous — an opinion which only began to change during the mid-1700s. Indeed, the first ketchup recipe that called for tomatoes only made its debut in 1801, when a woman named Sandy Addison created this recipe:


1. Get [the tomatoes] quite ripe on a dry day, squeeze them with your hands till reduced to a pulp, then put half a pound of fine salt on 100 tomatoes, and boil them for two hours.
2. Stir them to prevent burning.
3. While hot, press them through a fine sieve with a silver spoon till nought but the skin remains, then add a little mace, nutmegs, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper to taste.

4. Boil over a slow fire till quite thick, stir all the time.
5. Bottle when cold.
6. One hundred tomatoes will make four or five bottles and keep good for two or three years.


Interestingly, tomatoes, mushrooms, shellfish, and nuts all have a savory, meaty taste ingredient derived from L-glutamate, which today is commonly called umami — Japanese for “yummy” — and which is one of the five basic tastes that the tongue’s taste buds can recognize (sweet, sour, bitter, and salty are the other four). But once Americans got a taste of tomato-based ketchup, nothing else would do.



“Blessed Relief for Mothers”

At first, ketchup was made in the home or sold in the local market by farmers. Then in 1837 an enterprising farmer named Jonas Yerks got the idea to market the condiment nationally. Other companies followed suit, and ketchup’s red-letter day came when the family-owned Heinz company introduced their sweet tomato ketchup in 1876.


The driving force behind the company, H.J. Heinz, originally had his own business selling bottled horseradish. But when his business went belly-up during the financial panic of 1875, he was forced to join with his brother John and cousin Frederick to form the F & J Heinz Company, and it was this company that introduced Heinz ketchup to the world. A decade later, H.J. Heinz bought out his partners and changed the company’s name to the one that we’re all familiar with today.


Why was Heinz so successful that his ketchup has dominated the market for more than a century? Parnassah is in the hands of Hashem, of course, but H. J. Heinz also instituted some sound business practices. In an era where processed foods often had dangerous additives to enhance the flavor or preserve the food’s shelf life, Heinz insisted on manufacturing a “pure” product. Indeed, he was one of the staunchest advocates of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was made into law in 1906. He was also an early advocate of benevolent labor relations. Not only did he pay his factory workers well, but he also provided amenities such as free manicures and a rooftop garden to relax in.


In addition to his insistence on producing a healthy product made by happy employees, Heinz was a great marketer. An early slogan for Heinz ketchup promised, “Blessed relief for Mother and the other women in the household!” — referring to the long and arduous process of making a homemade version. Apparently, those mothers and other women agreed. By the end of the 1900s, recipes for homemade ketchup had disappeared from most American cookbooks.



Tasty, But Healthy?

By 1896, the New York Tribune was proclaiming that ketchup was the national condiment, a claim that still holds true today. But is all that ketchup consumption good for our health?


On the pro side, ketchup is a low-calorie, no-fat condiment that contains vitamins A and C. For instance, ketchup has just 15 calories per tablespoon, while an equal amount of mayonnaise contains 103 calories and 12 grams of fat. In addition, processed and cooked tomatoes have high levels of the antioxidant lycopene. Lycopene can help lower the risk of developing heart disease, according to a 2004 study released by the Harvard School of Public Health.


But before you reach for the ketchup bottle and pour out a generous helping, there are negative factors to consider. Ketchup contains both salt and sugar; to be precise, per tablespoon, ketchup contains four grams of sugar and 190 milligrams of sodium. Eight tablespoons of ketchup therefore will provide your sodium needs for the entire day.


Although ketchup was traditionally made from just tomatoes, vinegar, salt, pepper, and spices, in today’s more complicated world food companies will often add other ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup. Therefore, if you want a healthier alternative, you might want to check out some of the organic brands like (Heaven & Earth Tomato Ketchup). Or, of course, you could turn back the clock and make ketchup yourself.




This article originally appeared in Family First magazine and is reprinted with permission of the publisher.