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A History of Tomato Ketchup

Do you know where ketchup came from?

Do you know where ketchup came from?

It’s said that 97 percent of American homes have bottles of ketchup in them, and that 60 percent of that condiment is made by Heinz. But, today’s sauce can trace its origins back hundreds of years to when it was made with the fermented innards of fish. Yum, yum.

The Origin of Ke-chiap

According to Stephanie Butler (of soybeans, fish guts, and bits of discarded meat were mashed up and used as a cooking sauce in Southeast Asia. No tomatoes came anywhere near the mixture.

In the local dialects of the Zhangzhou and Guangzhou regions of China, this concoction was called ke-chiap (various other similar spellings are offered). The delicious confection found fans in Vietnam and Thailand, and then made its way down the Malay Peninsular to Singapore.

Food historian Ken Albana (of The Conversation) writes that’s “where British colonists first encountered what locals called ‘kecap’ in the 18th century. Like soy sauce, it was deemed exotic and perked up what was a comparatively bland British cuisine, such as roasts and fried foods.”

Not known for being adventurous cooks at the time, nonetheless the British started to tinker with the recipe using mushrooms and pickled walnuts.

Other versions of “ketchup” included oysters, white wine, lemon peel, and spices, and there was one made with anchovies and elderberries.

But, still no tomatoes.

Tomatoes on the vine

Tomatoes on the vine

Tomatoes Join Ketchup

This is where we meet James Mease, a horticulturalist living in Philadelphia. In 1804, he mused that “Love Apples” (tomatoes) made “a fine catsup.” But, it wasn’t until 1812, that he published the first recipe for catsup/ketchup. And that really marks the birth of tomato ketchup, as we know it today.

But, the result of Mease’s inventiveness had a drawback, it went off fairly quickly. So, it had to be made and consumed in a short period of time. In 1876, H.J. Heinz found a formulation that included vinegar as a preservative and so began the production of billions of bottles of tomato ketchup, or as Heinz called it at the time “catsup.” He changed it to ketchup later.

It caught on. Here’s Lakshmi Gandhi of National Public Radio: “An 1891 issue of Merchant’s Review boasted that ketchup was the ‘sauce of sauces’ and, five years later, The New York Tribune declared that tomato ketchup was America’s national condiment that was ‘on every table in the land’.”

H.J. Heinz in 1917.

H.J. Heinz in 1917.

Tomato Ketchup Ingredients

Each manufacturer has their own recipe that, understandably, they are reluctant to share with the world.

Obviously, there are what Heinz calls “red ripe tomatoes.” lists other ingredients that are included in ketchups, “distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, onion powder, spice, [and] natural flavor.” Of course “spice” and “natural flavor” can hide a multitude of mysteries.

Rose Costello (of The Irish Times) points out “There’s a lot of sugar too, however, at almost 23 percent of the gloop that comes out of a standard jar.” There’s plenty of salt as well―190 milligrams per tablespoon, or one-eighth of daily needs. Sloshing ketchup on food makes it easy to overload on salt.

Ketchup on fries

Ketchup on fries

Canadian Ketchup Nationalism

Leamington in southwestern Ontario, bills itself as “The Tomato Capital of Canada.” For more than a century, Heinz operated a plant that made ketchup in the town. The factory employed 740 people and bought 40 percent of the field tomatoes grown in Ontario.

In November 2013, the company announced it was closing it Leamington facility and moving production to the United States. This was going to have a devastating impact on the community of 27,000 people.

But, Heinz competitor French’s stepped in and re-opened the plant. Canadian consumers boycotted Heinz ketchup and French’s picked up a decent chunk Heinz’s market share. Canadian grocery giant Loblaws stopped carrying Heinz ketchup on the grounds there was little demand for it.

Branding experts have called the Leamington plant closing a major blunder. David Kincaid, CEO of Level5 Brand Strategy, said Heinz gave its “customers a reason to question the core value of [their] product.”

Heinz is trying to recover by building a ketchup production line in Montreal. However, it will be processing tomatoes grown in the U.S. Canadian ketchup consumers are unlikely to switch back to Heinz after what they see as the company’s shabby treatment of Leamington.

Beloved Canadian Singer Stomping Tom Connors

Bonus Factoids

  • When tomatoes, native to the Americas, first arrived in Europe in the 16th century, many people believed they were poisonous.
  • In 1866, the French cookbook author Pierre Blot took aim at ketchup warning that eating it would cause “debility and consumption.” He said it contained bacteria that made it “filthy, decomposed, and putrid.”
  • In 1981, someone in the Reagan administration (nobody confessed to the crime) proposed having ketchup designated as a vegetable as a way of reducing the cost of school lunch subsidies. The ridicule reached such epic proportions that the proposal was dropped. Republican Senator John Heinz (head of the ketchup company) said “Ketchup is a condiment. This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish―or did at one time.”
  • Remember purple ketchup? Heinz also put out green, blue, teal, and orange varieties in 2000. It worked for a while and more than 25 million bottles of non-red ketchup were sold. Then, the novelty wore off and consumers returned to traditional red ketchup and the funky stuff was pulled from the product line in 2006.
  • Heinz ketchup comes screaming out of the bottle at the blistering pace of 0.028 miles per hour. If a batch is found to be speedier than that it’s trashed.

“Shake and shake the ketchup bottle

None'll come, and then a lot'll.”

Richard Armour (often misattributed to Ogden Nash)

And Yes, It’s Matt LeBlanc Before He Became Famous as Joey in “Friends.”


© 2021 Rupert Taylor