Ketchup monoculture
March 31, 2009 2:31 AM   Subscribe

Why so few varieties of ketchup?

Tomato-based condiments seem particularly prone to speciation. My grocer carries many varieties of salsa, pasta sauce, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, and steak sauce. Probably ten varieties of each. There are many brands, and each brand sells several variations.

But not ketchup. I rarely see more than three or four varieties. Usually it's just Heinz, Hunt's, and the generic store brand. Maybe a feeble low salt / low sugar variant. This makes no sense. Ketchup is one of the highest selling condiments in the US. Why doesn't the market support more variety?

My grocery store sells twelve types of salt. Why only a couple types of ketchup?
posted by ryanrs to Food & Drink (47 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I remember reading an article once regarding this topic, somehow there is something magic about the classic ketchup, and it's hard to mess with and market successfully.
posted by defcom1 at 2:45 AM on March 31, 2009

Best answer: There's "The Ketchup Conundrum" by Malcolm Gladwell: "Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties. Why has ketchup stayed the same?"
posted by dreamyshade at 2:50 AM on March 31, 2009 [9 favorites]

Tomato is not the original, nor the only, ketchup. Check out mushroom ketchup, which is also easy to make.
posted by methylsalicylate at 2:50 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Malcolm Gladwell on the subject
posted by Nothing at 2:50 AM on March 31, 2009

yeah, that's the article. ^^
posted by defcom1 at 2:51 AM on March 31, 2009

The article Libertarians Are Dumb, or Why We Eat Heinz Ketchup claims that Heinz' market dominance was aided by a form of regulatory capture, forcing competitors out of business.
posted by Jakey at 3:17 AM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: That Malcolm Gladwell article is great:
[Jim Wigon's] operating assumption was that there ought to be some segment of the population that preferred a ketchup made with Stanislaus tomato paste and hand-chopped basil and maple syrup.

[but no..]

“The other comment from the panel was that these elements were really not blended at all,” Chambers went on. “The World’s Best product had really low amplitude.” According to Joyce Buchholz, one of the panelists, when the group judged aftertaste, “it seemed like a certain flavor would hang over longer in the case of World’s Best—that cooked-tomatoey flavor. [..] Our conclusion was mainly this: we felt that World’s Best seemed to be more like a sauce.”
I think I would be really enjoy an unbalanced ketchup, as long as I had several varieties to rotate.

The article suggests Heinz ketchup is unusually immune to flavor fatigue. It might actually be the best tasting ketchup.

Non-US mefites: has Heinz ketchup come to your shores? Has it decimated the native ketchup population like an invasive species? (Do you have native ketchup species?)

Not sure I believe the regulatory angle. That happened over a hundred years ago. Still, I guess my 'conspiracy' tag was justified.
posted by ryanrs at 3:46 AM on March 31, 2009

I am an American expat in Egypt. At our local American-y expat club, several folks were OUTRAGED when Egyptian-made Heinz tomato ketchup was used instead of American-made Heinz tomato ketchup. American-made Heinz ketchup was quickly returned to the tables.

I love ketchup myself and will confess to being able to tell the difference between the two. (Though I wasn't one of the outraged myself.)
posted by bluedaisy at 4:20 AM on March 31, 2009

Non-US mefites: has Heinz ketchup come to your shores? Has it decimated the native ketchup population like an invasive species? (Do you have native ketchup species?)

Heinz is a massive brand on a global scale, and has been for a long, long time. I can't really say if it has displaced any native ketchups in the UK - in my thirty something years of memory, I don't remember Heinz ever not being the dominant brand for ketchup, salad cream, tinned pasta and baked beans.

For most food products, I'll always buy the supermarket own-brand or generic label. There's just something about Heinz ketchup that nothing else matches. The Gladwell article certainly rings true.
posted by Bodd at 4:22 AM on March 31, 2009

interesting thread-something I've wondered about for a long time.

Just to note, Heinz is the only type of ketchup available at most groceries in Pittsburgh. Coming across another brand is a rare occurrence.
posted by buttercup at 4:23 AM on March 31, 2009

Here in the midwest, we also have Brooks Tangy Ketchup. It used to be very noticeably spicier than other brands. I say "used to" because, as is the way of the world, that uniqueness has been all but drummed-out of it since being bought by a big conglomerate (BirdsEye.)
posted by Thorzdad at 4:30 AM on March 31, 2009

It's worth pointing out that Heinz' dominance is due in no small part to transparency, i.e. they were among the first companies to sell their products in clear glass jars. This is significant because it was done in the era before the FDA was created, meaning that food processors were entirely unregulated and could (and did) cut their products with just about anything. By using clear jars, Heinz was able to gain a significant edge over the competition, because consumers could see that their products were unadulterated.

The company was able to leverage that advantage into a significant market position, which it has largely kept.
posted by valkyryn at 4:33 AM on March 31, 2009

There's German/Dutch style curry ketchup, too.

U.S. consumers, taken as a block, are notoriously unimaginative and timid. Maybe the question isn't so much why there's little variety in ketchup on U.S. store shelves, but what made regular consumers accept more than one kind of mustard.

For that matter, exurban U.S. groceries still sell truckloads of yellow mustard, spongy white bread, the same x flavors of jelly/preserves, the same x flavors of canned soup...
posted by gimonca at 5:03 AM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: Bodd, do you know if UK Heinz ketchup is the same as US Heinz ketchup? Sometimes they're different (see: baked beans).

Note to Heinz: List product details on your website. More words, less ketchup clipart.
posted by ryanrs at 5:03 AM on March 31, 2009

Non-US mefites: has Heinz ketchup come to your shores? Has it decimated the native ketchup population like an invasive species? (Do you have native ketchup species?)

According to Wikipedia, Heinz entered the UK around the turn of the 20th century. Like Ford, they market themselves heavily as a British brand (connotations of home, nostalgia, comfort). I bet if you ran a survey, a significant percentage or Brits would tell you it was a UK company.

I've been looking at old recipe books recently, and my gut feeling is that mushroom ketchup was more common than tomato. I don't know if there were any British brands to supplant.
posted by Leon at 5:08 AM on March 31, 2009

I think because people demand that exact flavor- ketchup is just a more narrow product. I'd call it a type of tomato based condiment, rather than a thing all its own. Like yellow mustard- it's a very specific variety that people want to taste like they expect it to taste. If a ketchup was modified, it wouldn't be ketchup any more, it would be tomato sauce.

(Hunts actually tastes better. And Heinz had a variety of Organic that was quite good.)
posted by gjc at 5:10 AM on March 31, 2009

Yes, Hunts really does taste better.

I think ketchup is ketchup, and anything you do to change it either ruins it or makes it something besides ketchup. Oh, and I notice the stores around here don't sell it in those awful goofy colors they were marketing to kids for awhile anymore either.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:35 AM on March 31, 2009

Non-US mefites: has Heinz ketchup come to your shores? Has it decimated the native ketchup population like an invasive species? (Do you have native ketchup species?)

As an American brought up on Heinz ketchup, and now living half of the time in Australia, I specifically buy Heinz when I am there.
In Australia what you generally use instead of ketchup is called tomato sauce, a type of generic ketchup that cannot compare to Heinz. On the supermarket shelves Heinz has only a small spot compared to the other varieties of tomato sauces.
posted by newpotato at 5:44 AM on March 31, 2009

UK Heinz Ketchup ingredients (from the bottle label):

Tomatoes (132g per 100g ketchup), Spirit Vinegar, Sugar, Salt, Spice and Herb extracts (contain celery), Spice.

I'm guessing the biggest difference (as with most UK/US processed food variants) is the lack of corn syrup.
posted by Bodd at 6:05 AM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: US Heinz: Tomato Concentrate Made from Red Ripe Tomatoes, Distilled Vinegar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Salt, Spice, Onion Powder, Natural Flavoring.

Two types of corn syrup for twice the American-ness!
posted by ryanrs at 6:09 AM on March 31, 2009

Try Hunts Sugar-free Ketchup. It tastes totally different and wonderful at the same time. I love it, but it only comes in small size bottles.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 6:14 AM on March 31, 2009

In Sweden our Ketchup is different and their are several brands. Last night I borrowed some that came in one of those infamous Swedish metal tubes and used it because realizing it was "sweet" ketchup and it wasn't going to go very well on my food. Their are about four varieties of this tube ketchup. Swedes, to my horror, use ketchup like tomato sauce on their spaghetti. It isn't very good, but it's a popular thing to give to children.

Some types are simply called tomatpure.
posted by melissam at 6:46 AM on March 31, 2009

It may be but one brand of ketchup, but with 57 varieties who needs more?
posted by caddis at 6:56 AM on March 31, 2009

To answer your second question...

I'm from Trinidad & Tobago. Heinz is available here but it's not a big thing. Trinidadians generally like their ketchup a lot sweeter (and cheaper!), and buy local brands that sell it that way.

Personally, I prefer Heinz, but it's not perfect. I love ketchup, but no existing brand lives up to my happy ideal - it's all gross on one level or another. So I wish there were more of a market for other kinds.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 7:26 AM on March 31, 2009

I bet if you ran a survey, a significant percentage or Brits would tell you it was a UK company.

Yup, I can remember as a kid being quite surprised to find out it was an American company. This is true of a few other things, I was also surprised as an 8 year old to find out that baked beans were also American. These things had just become so much a part of British food culture that no one really stopped to consider whether they were native or not. The Ford parallel is relevant too, I can remember as a kid someone with a Ford snootily saying to my father (who drove a Peugeot) that he was proud to buy British. So it seems like all these products made a concerted effort to at least seem British. In any event, most people in the UK would consider Heinz the proper ketchup and the others imitations...
posted by ob at 7:42 AM on March 31, 2009

Slightly off-topic, but I stumbled across a series of recipes for catsup in my copy of the Joy of Cooking the other week. Among them were non-tomato varieties such as mushroom, as well as low-sugar tomato varieties. Seeing as how the market doesn't seem interested in offering these varieties, I'd bloody tempted to try some of them to see how they would taste.

Here's a list of recipes for non-catsup catsup.
posted by LN at 7:58 AM on March 31, 2009

I think BBQ and salsa and other tomatoey hot sauces have filled the niche that Grey Poupon and others filled in the mustard world.
posted by hermitosis at 8:05 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh thank god this question is posed. There is only one Ketchup, and that is Heinz. I hate when I'm at a restaurant and those cheap bastards give me Hunts, or some other variety. Catsup? Please... take that grainy, tomato sauce away from my plate so I can enjoy my Heinz, thank you.

That said, I would argue that Heinz basically owns the product because it is much more a product than a food category. Hunts is just a worse tasting copy of Heinz. I'm racking my brain to come up with an example of what I'm arguing, and I can't think of one. Perhaps what Kleenex, Saran Wrap or Xerox were to their products, though they NOW have many competitors, but are still called by their product name (tissue? Cellophane? xerographic copier?).

Anyway, I'd say there aren't more varieties because they would be different products. The biggest difference with other competitors is the consistency and the aftertaste, both which ruin the experience for me.

Now I understand other people aren't as interested in Ketchup as I am. I've eaten with you people before... You can't understand it when I send a bottle of ketchup back because it has gone bad (Ketchup should be refrigerated.. not left on a table for a week). I describe bad Ketchup as having a "carbonated" taste to it. Yuck.

I could go on... Ketchup has been a lifelong obsession. To each their own, but to me, there will only ever be Heinz.
posted by namewithhe1d at 8:11 AM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

I miss German curry flavored ketchup. Fortunately, I've found shop here in the US that sells it!
posted by at 8:36 AM on March 31, 2009

Yes, Hunts really does taste better.

No it doesn't. Any more than hamburgers taste better than donuts. Heinz is what ketchup tastes like, and the Heinz bottle is what ketchup looks like, to the vast majority of Americans. That prejudice obliterates any benefit of some slight variation in formula that Hunts or Campbells or Wal-Mart can offer.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:52 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been torn between my love of Heinz as the One True Ketchup and the fact that it has HCFS. How does the organic version compare?
posted by djb at 9:25 AM on March 31, 2009

Canadian Heinz: Tomato Paste (Made From Fresh Ripe Tomatoes), Liquid Sugar, White Vinegar, Salt, Onion Powder, Spices / Pâte de Tomate (Faite De Tomates Mûres Bien Fraiches), Sucre Liquide, Vinaigre Blanc, Sel, Oignon En Poudres, Épices.

Looks like Canadian Heinz is sweeter than UK Heinz, but probably less sweet than US Heinz because of that double-barrelled shot of corn that allows vinegar to sneak ahead on the ingredients list by a technicality. Canada: right in the middle as usual.
posted by maudlin at 9:35 AM on March 31, 2009

I'm a sucker for chipotle ketchup, myself. And has anyone else found that chili sauce is just a spicier version of ketchup? Crazy good on curly fries.
posted by Juliet Banana at 9:36 AM on March 31, 2009

Heinz just has ketchup down pat. It's kind of a trade secret sort of thing, where their recipe is just superior. Much in the same way Coke is better than Pepsi, except even less debateable.

What's up with "catsup" though? Is it an indicator of inferiority or impurity, much like certain beverages are "drink" instead of "juice"? Is there anyone who prefers catsup to ketchup?
posted by explosion at 9:44 AM on March 31, 2009

I really do like Annie's Organic better. I have nothing really to prove it, just taste.
posted by scazza at 10:31 AM on March 31, 2009

It's my and NOAD's understanding that catsup is just a variant, maybe older spelling. I think it's just about the history of the term there.
posted by scazza at 10:32 AM on March 31, 2009

Best answer: It's partially due to the "benzoate war" in the early 1900s, according to the book Pure Ketchup by Andrew Smith, a professor of history at the New School in NYC. In a nutshell, Harvey Washington Wiley, the "father" of the FDA, opposed the use of preservatives like benzoate in packaged foods. Benzoate was used in commercially manufactured ketchup at the time. In response, and while a debate on the merits of benzoate was being fought, Heinz found a way to produce ketchup without benzoate and other preservatives. Heinz then waged a successful marketing campaign touting their lack of preservatives in their ketchup, gaining them more consumers: after 1915, Heinz enjoyed more than half of the total market share of the "ketchup field," according to Smith. Although in the end the use of benzoates was allowed in condiments at the end of the great debate in 1915, the ketchup industry had given up using them.

For a much more detailed and interesting account of the history of ketchup, I'd recommend getting your hands on a copy of Pure Ketchup. It's a really interesting read and includes many historical recipes for all different kinds of ketchup.
posted by k8lin at 10:37 AM on March 31, 2009

One Canadian ketchup connoisseur here (seriously, I like to make my own ketchup from scratch) who can easily tell the US Heinz from the Canadian stuff, liquid sugar > HFCS. Not so much that I carry Canuck Heinz to the States but close.
posted by Cosine at 11:06 AM on March 31, 2009

I can be pretty picky about food, and there was a time when anything mainstream was viewed with suspicion (beer, bread, meat...). I've always strongly favored Heinz ketchup. Hunts is just gross, and I can't say I've ever had a "gourmet" ketchup that didn't just seem wrong. I have very few other long standing food-brand loyalties. It's pretty much Heinz Ketchup and Coke. I'm open to a variety of mustards (as long as they aren't horrible bright-yellow French's-style concoctions). I'll even have other tomato products on my burgers and hot dogs, like various tomato and chilli relishes, and I'll dip my fries in mayo, aoli, chocolate milkshakes, etc.

Interesting that Heinz is American. I've been exposed to enough of the UK marketing that I had some vague idea it started in the UK.
posted by Good Brain at 11:17 AM on March 31, 2009

Banana ketchup.

Damnit, now I want tater tots and a corndog.
posted by loquacious at 12:35 PM on March 31, 2009

Response by poster: Sandking, Ketchup World is a sham. Most of the interesting stuff is out of stock.
posted by ryanrs at 12:59 PM on March 31, 2009

I suggest that many BBQ sauces are, for all intents and purposes, smoky ketchup varietals - tomato, sugar and vinegar dressings with assorted additional spices. I certainly use them in the same applications.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:47 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Of course, since the original ke-tsiap or kecap reipe is a bit of a mystery, but generally reputed to have been a "spicy fish sauce" (The first recipe for "english ketchup" was published in 1727. As ingredients :anchovies, shallots, vinegar, white wine, cloves, ginger, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and lemon peel via), so maybe this counts. It's good on everything, which likewise gives it an attribute in common with ketchup.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:57 PM on March 31, 2009

Now I understand other people aren't as interested in Ketchup as I am. I've eaten with you people before... You can't understand it when I send a bottle of ketchup back because it has gone bad (Ketchup should be refrigerated.. not left on a table for a week). I describe bad Ketchup as having a "carbonated" taste to it. Yuck.

I would certainly understand you, namewithhe1d, as a person who has had a bottle of carbonated ketchup explode all over her. In las vegas. In a white outfit.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:59 PM on March 31, 2009

Best answer: They tried branching out, but the products must not have sold; I haven't seen them in ages.
Heinz had a line called Ketchup Kick'rs which had spicy, smoky, and garlic flavors.

Then there was the colored ketchup for kids, EZ Squirt. Tasted just like ketchup.

Here is an article that may be of interest.
posted by bink at 4:29 PM on March 31, 2009

I think that it's simply a matter of definition. If your definition of ketchup were "a pourable tomato-based sauce", then between the barbecue sauces and the pasta sauces, you'd have a much bigger selection than the mustards. Similarly, as Gladwell noted, "mustard" used to be pretty much limited to the turmeric-adulterated stuff, until the Grey Poupon people came along. (Not that there wasn't other kinds of mustard on the shelf, but they were usually tucked away in the gourmet section.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:16 PM on April 1, 2009

« Older Getting old posts removed from a blogging service   |   Falling down: help me not to Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.