Tomatoes + ambiguity = perfection

By Rebecca Firkser
February 07, 2018
Photo by Chris Rank via Getty Images

Of all the breakfast condiments, I think of none more fondly than ketchup. A necessary accompaniment to scrambled eggs and hash browns, there’s nothing like it. But what exactly is in ketchup, and why do we always think of Heinz’s version first? 

We all know ketchup as a tomato-based product, but it’s certainly not tomato sauce or tomato paste. The tangy-sweet sauce contains vinegar, onions, garlic, some kind of sweetener, and seasonings like mustard powder, cumin, allspice and cinnamon. However, if you were to make a batch at home with those ingredients, your ketchup still probably wouldn’t taste like the stuff you get at the diner. So, what else is going on inside every bottle of Heinz? 

Although ketchup was first used as a general table sauce (it was called “catsup” then), and was made with vegetables other than tomatoes, what we think of as ketchup today is actually the result of a debate over a potentially dangerous preservative. Sodium benzoate, a chemically engineered sodium salt, was used in many packaged foods during the early 20th century. Harvey W. Wiley, the first commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, was against using the preservative, citing scores of health complications it could cause. Along with other entrepreneurs, Henry J. Heinz set out to create a ketchup that didn’t need to be preserved with sodium benzoate. We’ve all eaten what he came up with.

So what’s lurking behind that classic black and white label? A bottle of classic Heinz ketchup contains tomato concentrate “from red ripe tomatoes,” distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, salt, onion powder, spice, natural flavor. Considering that this ingredient list is made up of fairly common items, the reason Heinz ketchup tastes so good has to do with the exact ratios of each ingredient. Even Simply Heinz, the company’s corn syrup-free ketchup, tastes pretty similar to the classic. 

The answer to why Heinz is so good is right on their website: Each bottle contains “a special blend of spices and flavorings—all the good things that make Heinz ‘America's Favorite Ketchup®’.” They’ve landed on the perfect recipe, and no other brand or skilled home cook can compete.


There are of course small-batch, artisanal ketchup companies, as well as larger producers of the condiment all over the world, but none of their products taste as much of a completely unique product as Heinz. For example, a bottle of Sir Kensington’s Ketchup contains tomatoes, tomato paste, organic cane sugar, onions, distilled vinegar, water, salt, lime juice concentrate, green bell peppers, and allspice—a very similar list to Heinz’s. While ketchups produced by companies like Sir Kensington’s, Hunt’s, Muir Glen, and French’s are certainly good tomato-based condiments, they’re not going to taste or look as good as Heinz.

Perhaps it’s this simultaneous ambiguity of the spice blend and the miraculous ability to hit all of the five tastes at once, in perfect harmony, that makes Heinz ketchup so good. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in The New Yorker, “the taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this?”

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