Ketchup – The last word on history’s most interesting condiment
As one of the classic condiments in nearly every family’s kitchen, ketchup finds its way onto scrambled eggs, burgers, sauces, and everything in between.
Despite its popularity on the dining room table, many people remain unaware of several interesting and important facts about one of the world’s most enjoyed accompaniments.
Today’s ketchup lands on your plate at the end of a long journey spanning different cultures, many centuries, and a hodge-podge of ingredients.
This article highlights the unique history of one of the world’s most interesting condiments, discusses issues such as quality and storage, and gives some practical steps for fans of this worldly sauce (no matter how you like to use it).
- ketchup is considered a “shelf-stable” food
- ketchup that smells or tastes “off” has gone bad
- unopened ketchup last unrefrigerated for a year
- once opened, 6 months is the cut-off point for ketchup stored in a refrigerator
Playing it safe
Now, when it comes to ketchup, there are some key points to keep in mind related to food safety.
Although many foods are either in the “keep refrigerated” category or not, ketchup can actually be kept at room temperature or in the refrigerator.
Ketchup is considered a “shelf-stable” food, which, according to the US Department of Agriculture, means that an unopened container can sit at room temperature (without refrigeration) safely.
The State of New York Agriculture Department indicates that unopened ketchup can remain unrefrigerated for a year, but once opened, the unused product should likely be discarded in 6 months if refrigerated, or 1 month if not refrigerated.
Consumer Reports agrees, indicating that 6 months is the cut-off point for opened ketchup stored in a refrigerator.(1)
So, if you’re stocking up for a cookout (even for one next year), feel free to leave unopened bottles in your pantry or cupboard until it’s time to warm up the grill!
But once you open that bottle, be sure to keep it in the refrigerator.
And remember to check the refrigerator temperature, including the different storage compartments (like the shelving inside the door, where the highest variability in temperatures can occur).
It’s always wise to pay attention to the “best by” dates on food products, but these recommendations can also be a useful guide.
For the risk-takers
Concerned about “iffy” ketchup and want to know if it’s safe, or if you should throw it out?
While there’s no sense in taking chances with your food, for those on the adventurous side, here’s some information that may help.
First, the US Department of Agriculture recommends that refrigerators be set to a temperature of 40-degrees Fahrenheit or below.
At higher temperatures, food-borne bacteria can begin to multiply rapidly, increasing health risks if consumed.
So, if your refrigerator has recently failed, resulting in extended times above the recommended temperature guidance, it may worth tossing that leftover bottle.
A second concern relates to spoilage—what happens to food that is just past its prime.
Here, the USDA further advises that spoiled food will have an “off” taste or smell, although the likelihood of serious illness is generally low. Besides, how much of that smelly, off-putting ketchup are you really going to eat?
So, for any questionable portions left over, first look for obvious mold or spots inside the bottle or on the ketchup itself (and if you see any, throw the bottle out right away).
Then give the ketchup a smell, followed by tasting a small dab if there is no bad odor.
Following these steps should give you a clear indication of whether the ketchup should be thrown away or can last you for a few more days.
What do fish and bananas have to do with my ketchup?
According to the dictionary, the word ketchup comes into English from the Malay word kichap, itself likely a derivative word of the Chinese kôe-chiap (“brine of fish”), which was a spicy and salty fish-based sauce used heavily in Asia as early as the 17th century.(2)
Due to the lineage of the word, as it worked its way into modern English, various spellings (such as “ketchup” and “catsup”) have arisen, but they all refer to the same thing.
Interestingly, history suggests that tomatoes were not the primary ingredient in the early forms of ketchup. Instead, many variations used such unfamiliar components as mushrooms, walnuts, and cinnamon.
These different concoctions reflect the food culture, economy, agriculture, and taste preferences of the time. There’s even a banana-based ketchup still on the market today!
Eventually, through trade and the passage of time, the customary tomato-based sauce found its way into British and North American diets by 1817, according to a cookbook called Apicius Redivivus: Or, The Cook’s Oracle by William Kitchiner.(3)
By the 19th century, ketchup had started to resemble the product we know today, and it began to take on the sweeter quality that distinguishes American varieties.
It was also during this era that ketchup first appeared in a bottle.
What’s in the bottle?
As we know it today, ketchup contains a mixture of tomatoes, vinegar, spices, and preservatives.
Two of the most popular brands of ketchup, Heinz and Hunt’s, report similar ingredients and nutritional content for a standard 1-tablespoon serving—approximately 20 calories, 160 milligrams of sodium, and only 4 grams of sugar.(4,5)
The leading brands also tend to contain none of the typical allergens that people with food sensitivities have to avoid:
- tree nuts
- and wheat
So, for adults on a 2,000-calorie diet (even those with food allergies), a tablespoon or two of ketchup can add flavor without sidetracking nutritional goals. Of course, that double-cheeseburger with fries that you’re putting the ketchup onto is another thing!
There even may be some limited health benefits to ketchup, given some of the ingredients it contains.
According to Montana State University, tomatoes (ketchup’s primary ingredient) have high amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium.(6)
There are some things to keep an eye on, however, such as the sugar and sodium content, which may pose a problem for people with certain health conditions.
Remember to always check with your doctor for nutritional advice.
Ranking your ketchup
Even though all catsup is ketchup, not all ketchup is good ketchup!
What’s the difference between “decent” ketchup and the good stuff, you ask? If you’ve ever eaten ketchup that tasted flat, had a dull color, or was lumpy and full of tiny particles, then you probably already know the answer.
The United States Department of Agriculture identifies four distinct grades of ketchup, ranging from A, B, C, and “sub-standard.”
These rankings consider such facts as the color, consistency, presence of defects, and percentage of solids by weight.
There is even manual for how to assess different batches of ketchup, which includes guidance on assessing the glossy nature of the color, how thick the liquid pours out of the container, the tolerance for seeds and specks, and how the ketchup tastes.
Each of these factors contributes to a total score of 0 to 100, indicating exactly how well the ketchup in your bottle is made.
So, if you are still reading this article and wondering if you’re taking your ketchup too seriously, remember this: Somewhere out there, a person in a lab coat, likely with a fancy diploma, is testing your ketchup’s sheen to make sure it’s worth that precious ‘A’ rating.
Ketchup seems to be everywhere, from hot dog stands to the tables of the fanciest restaurants.
You probably didn’t know the storied past of this versatile condiment.
Here are some key facts to remember:
- Ketchup has a long history that spans centuries and many countries. The ketchup of China in the 17th century was not like what we have today!
- Pay attention to your ketchup’s color, thickness, and flavor for an indication of its general quality.
- Unopened ketchup stays fresh for 12 months unrefrigerated. Refrigerate opened bottles and discard after 6 months.
- The nutrition content for leading brands of ketchup indicates that it can be part of a normal diet. But be sure to consult with your doctor for any health-related questions or concerns.
- Ketchup that smells or tastes “off” has probably spoiled (even in the refrigerator) and should be thrown away