Powell: HOLY COW! HISTORY: When America was terrified of ketchup

By J. Mark Powell

Your parents once feared that they would be killed by salt. No, actually, he was. They were so scared, in fact, that we came within a whisker of losing our favorite sauce. This is what happened when America was afraid of ketchup. If you thought the gooey delicacy was born in the 1950s when Richie, Potsie and Fonzie mixed it onto French fries at Arnold’s Drive-in on “Happy Days,” think again.

Ketchup, (or catsup for the linguists among us), goes back further than that.

It has existed for many years, which began to spread in America in 1682, although in colonial times it was made from mushrooms. Tomatoes gradually entered the 19th century. A recipe for cooking in 1817 included anchovies. By the 1850s, anchovies had been extracted and sweetened with sugar, and what we know today began to emerge.

Civil War soldiers wrote home asking for an end to the war ration.

Ketchup in its variations has been around for hundreds of years. Farmers who made it from their own seeds sold it. Jonas Yerkes is believed to be the first American to sell and sell the product.

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H.& J. Heinz jumped into the market big, unveiling its signature Heinz Tomato Ketchup in 1876, and promoting it with the slogan, “Blessed relief for Mothers and other women at home!”

By the 20th century, ketchup was common. There were more colors than you can shake a proverb at. But they all faced the same great problem. Ketchup had a limited shelf life.

The material rotted over time. Unscrupulous manufacturers hid in bottles made of brown, green or blue glass. Customers didn’t know if their container was contaminated until they took it home and opened it.

Henry Heinz solved this problem by putting his ketchup in clear glass bottles. Although they cost more than the cheaper tinted glasses, they thought that consumers would pay more to know what they were getting. His gamble paid off, eventually forcing the entire industry to switch to clear lenses.

But that solved only one part of the problem. Bottling involved watering tomatoes. As the 1900s drew to a close, fermentation began to explode.

Yes, you read that right. Bottles of well-kept American ketchup are exploding!

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Consider this 1895 New York Sun article: “A bottle of soup exploded on a family dinner table in Michigan City, Indiana, recently, and forced all the dishes down on the table.”

Or how about a 1903 Saint Paul Globe headline: “Catsup Bottle Explodes in Hand: 12-Year-Old Girl Badly Cut by Flying Glass.”
Ketchup was no longer delicious; it was potentially fatal.

Another reason was guilt. Producers were increasing the number of drugs and products. Centuries-old studies have shown that most contain some form of antiseptic.

Dr. Harvey Wiley, who is the head of the chemistry department of the United States Department of Agriculture, recruited young workers to eat different immune-boosting products and studied the results. Dubbed the “Poison Squad” by the media, they recorded enough physical side effects (everything from headaches and heartburn to depression and constipation) to fill a hospital.

The culprit was finally identified. Benzoates, the preservatives of choice at the time, were making consumers sick as bottles exploded.
As difficult as it is today, some people wonder if the sale of ketchup should be banned altogether.

Again, it was Henry Heinz who made the save. A pioneer in the food industry, in 1906 his researchers discovered a way to make American sauce without benzoate. The recipe was more than double the salt, sugar and vinegar than before. Over the next two years, Heinz produced 12 million bottles without spoiling.

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Heinz’s gambling customers were willing to pay more for a better product, but they also won.

The benzoate site (and there was such a thing) came back strong. A vicious war broke out in the pages of academic journals. The blue-ribbon group ruled that benzoate is safe if consumed in small amounts.

But Americans weren’t buying it, either intellectually or financially. They voted with their pocketbooks. By 1911, Heinz and his preservative-free ketchup had won the day.

The outbreak also influenced the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1906.

So, the next time you lift a bun off a burger or lift a bottle off a hotdog, stop and remember Heinz, Dr. Wiley, the Poison Squad, and the rest who made ketchup safe for democracy. You would be eating mustard without them.

Holy Cow! The history is written by author, former TV reporter and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell.


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