Anyone who’s ever squirted something saucy on a particularly bland bit of food knows all about the power of the condiment. How many times have burnt barbecues and cheap hot dogs been saved by a dollop of mustard or a dash of mayo? In the right hands, condiments can make even the most flavourless plate of sludge taste like something you’d happily serve to someone special. How “lay off the sauce” ever became a sound piece of advice is anyone’s guess.
Of course, everyone has a personal preference when it comes to condiments. Some like it spicy and some like it sweet, but by and large, everyone agrees on one thing - ketchup is awesome. Whether you dribble it on fries or pipe it into a sausage bun, there isn’t a fast food on the planet that can’t be improved by a hit of something red and sticky. Perhaps that’s why Americans manage to get through around 71 pounds of ketchup every year. Those are impressive sauce numbers by any standard.
On the surface, you might be hard-pressed to explain why ketchup should be more popular than any of the other million and one condiments scattered in cupboards across the world. You can get sweetness from barbecue and spice from sriracha, so why would anyone settle for something as boring as run-of-the-mill TK? Surprisingly, it’s not just that we’re all creatures of habit. There’s something else behind our ketchup obsession.
Scientists have discovered that there is something particular to ketchup that keeps us coming back time and again. As with any good food, it’s all a matter of taste. Our perception of taste is made up of five separate sensations - sweet, salty, bitter, sour and the elusive umami. There are many sauces that cater for one or two of these senses, but almost all fail to hit us with all five. Remarkably, ketchup is one of the only foods on earth that does.
It is for this reason that some scientists have dubbed ketchup as the perfect food. When we taste it, our entire palate is satisfied to the extent where - if the manufacturer gets it right - we don’t get one particular spike of flavour, but rather an overwhelming sense of deliciousness. This is why ketchup is the ultimate accompaniment to almost any dish. But, though the four players of sweet, salty, bitter, sour certainly play their part, it is the mysterious presence of umami that really makes ketchup so remarkable.
Umami is almost impossible to articulate. It is the deep savouriness that is delivered by a well-placed shave of parmesan and the rich warmth of a bowl of broth. Translated from Japanese, it simply means “delicious”. It is that indescribable sensation that makes some foods irresistibly moreish. You couldn’t say what it tastes like, but you will know when it is there.
So sought after is umami that some scientists have spent years creating and perfecting a controversial and well-known shortcut. MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has been an ever-present ingredient in fast food around the world since it was first introduced in the early 20th century. It is why fast food and unhealthy snacks seem so delicious, despite all the nastiness that we know lies within. False rumours about the negative health impacts of MSG have flown around since the 1960s, but the reality is simply that the umami substitute is an affordable, straightforward way to inject flavour into naturally flavourless cooking, all in the pursuit of elusive umami taste.
Though many would never admit to keeping a sneaky jar of MSG in the kitchen cupboard, the hunt for umami is at the centre of every great chef’s repertoire. This is why, for many cooks, tomato ketchup plays a crucial role in modern cooking. From curry houses to the kitchens of Jamie Oliver and Marco Pierre White, chefs have long recognised the transformative potential of a squeeze of ketchup. Giving their food an extra hit of all five basic taste sensations, including that elusive umami kicker, any chef worth his salt will never be far from a bottle of ketchup.
Clearly, there’s more to tomato sauce than mindless dipping. But, before you go proclaiming the awesome powers of this secret superfood to the world at large, there are a few caveats to the perfect food rule. It isn’t just a matter of heading to the shop and picking up any old bottle of vaguely tomatoey looking sauce. Remarkable though it may seem, there is only one brand that truly ticks every taste box.
Heinz have been making ketchup since 1869 and have established themselves as the definitive name in ketchup. Astonishingly, the reason behind their dominance is that they alone produce a condiment that somehow manages to keep every flavour in perfect balance with one another. Though many believe Heinz’s flavour to be more due to luck than skill, this is why lesser brands will never be able to match the success of the American ketchup kings - they’ve already created the perfect formula.
Doubtless, there will be some people who can’t think of anything worse than an accompaniment of ketchup. Unfortunately for the unbelievers, the science doesn’t lie. Despite your own personal preferences, the facts speak for themselves. By hook or by crook, tomato ketchup really is the perfect food.