Ketchup Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


4 Conversations

A blob of ketchup

Catsup: No, not a material made by throwing felines toward the ceiling.

Catchup: No, not something you do when you are lagging behind.

Katchop: No, not what a martial artist does when his cat bothers him.

These three words are all acceptable spellings of the popular condiment found in 97 percent of American kitchens. Tomato ketchup is by far the most popular of the ketchup family and is the most popular in almost every developed country in the world. Nearly everyone likes ketchup, although not everyone agrees on what to put it on. President Nixon covered his cottage cheese with it, the Japanese now eat it on rice, and one ice cream manufacturer allegedly once tried to produce a ketchup ice cream. But how did this condiment become so popular? Let's take a look at the history of this viscous, red substance that has changed the way people think of food.

History of Ketchup

The word ketchup is thought to be derived from the Chinese ke-tsiap, a pickled fish sauce that had a savoury taste, flavoured by brine spices and fish. It travelled from China to Malaysia where it became kechap, then to Indonesia where it was ketjap. 17th-Century Dutch and English sailors discovered the delights of this fishy sauce and brought it back with them to the west. It was akin to a soy or Worcestershire sauce, but gradually went through various changes. British alternatives included the brine of pickled mushrooms (the favourite, which would often be clear and very thin), anchovies, oysters, and walnuts. These catsups were usually tart. The most notable was the addition of tomatoes in the 1700s.1

The Name Game, Part One

So, what's in a name? Variations such as 'catsup', 'catchup', 'katsup', and 'ketchup' abounded in the early days of the condiment. In 1690 the word 'catchup' appeared in print in reference to this sauce, and in 1711 'ketchup'. The 1727 edition of The Compleat Housewife2 included a recipe for 'English Katchop'3. Catsup and catchup are acceptable spellings, but most cookery books (and normal people) spell it ketchup. However, the name would come into play much later in ketchup's history.

Selling the Stuff

A New England farmer offered ketchup for sale in 1830 in bottles, priced from 33 to 50 cents. In 1837, Americans selling ketchup in Britain were encouraged to rename it 'tomato chutney' in order to draw attention to the differences between their product and the mushroom ketchup popular in Britain.

Ketchup was sold nationwide in the US by 1837 thanks to the hard work of Jonas Yerkes, who sold the product in quart and pint bottles. He used the refuse of tomato canning (including skins, cores, green tomatoes, and lots of sugar and vinegar) to create mass amounts of ketchup. Lots of other small companies followed suit. The big success came in 1872 when HJ Heinz added ketchup to his line of pickled products and introduced it at the Philadelphia fair. The Heinz formula has not changed since, and has become the standard by which other ketchups are rated. The ketchup industry grew immensely from that point forward, and by 1900 there were 100 manufacturers of ketchup.

They Put What in it?

In 1848 some ketchup manufacturers in America came under fire for their unsanitary practices; coal tar was frequently used to heighten the red colour in ketchup. Others made the condiment from concentrated tomato pulp in the off-season, which they stored in questionable circumstances. This put eaters at risk of developing serious illnesses. This debate over ketchup continued until the 1900s, when the US Pure Food Act put strict limits on food manufacturers.

Contents Include...

US government standard regulations for 1901 ketchup state that ketchup includes:

  • Cooked and strained tomato sauce
  • Vinegar
  • Sugar or a similar sweetener
  • Salt
  • Onion or garlic flavours
  • Various spices such as cinnamon, cloves, mace, allspice, nutmeg, ginger and/or cayenne pepper
Grading standards dating to around 1953 dictated that ketchup that flowed only nine centimetres in thirty seconds received the Grade A rating. 4 The standards were revised in 1991 so that now Grade A ketchup only needs to ooze three to seven centimetres in thirty seconds to make the grade - an even thicker state.

The Name Game, Part Two

When US President Reagan's administration briefly decided to count ketchup as a vegetable in 1981, Del Monte Catsup found itself out of the loop due to their spelling - they permanently changed to 'ketchup', but by then public outcry had forced a reversal of administration policy. Ever since then, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bottle from any manufacturer labelled anything other than 'ketchup'.

Health Benefits?

Although it frequently graces such foods as fries and greasy burgers, ketchup itself has moderate health benefits, as it contains lycopene, an antioxidant associated with decreased cancer risk. 5

The Future is Tasty

Ketchup is a versatile food, one that has gone through many transformations in the past centuries and is still changing. Heinz, one of the most popular brands of ketchup, announced a 'dynamic global initiative' to globalise their tomato ketchup product, making it a universal symbol of the tasty way to add flavour to food. Manufacturers are recently trying to lure the younger crowd into consuming more ketchup, and thus have released various colour ketchups, including a green, purple, light blue, and dark blue variety. All of them taste the same, but they're supposed to have more appeal to younger crowds. No one knows what is in store for ketchup. New recipes are being tried out every day. These candidates are forced to pass rigorous taste testing, production, and finicky markets. Still, the future is uncertain; one of these sauces may become more popular than ketchup. Someday.

1After people found out tomatoes were not poisonous after all.2Who can't spell.3Oh, those poor kitty cats!4They liked their ketchup nice and thick. 'Just try to cut through it with a knife!' they used to scoff. 5It's not enough to compensate for the fries, which have enough greasy fats in them to put you into cardiac arrest in no time. Now eat up!

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