Anyone who likes their food to have a little extra oomph knows all about the awesome power of the condiment. Sauces can do everything from save a bland burger to taking a sandwich to the stratosphere, so it’s small wonder that every cuisine on earth has their own interpretation of something squeezy and delicious. But, out of all the bottles blocking up cupboard shelves, there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The world gets through an astonishing amount of tomato ketchup. American food processing giants Heinz sell an estimated 650 million bottles around the world every year - not to mention the 11 billion single serve sachets that also get distributed. When you consider that those numbers are the work of just one major brand, it becomes all too clear that we have a ketchup obsession.
Perhaps surprisingly, ketchup’s history goes back a lot further than you might think. Though glass and plastic sauce bottles have a distinctly modern look, cooks have actually been making ketchup for hundreds of years. Long before we pumped it onto burgers and hotdogs, the tomato variety had a surprising life as a nineteenth century health food.
The story starts in 1834, with renowned contemporary physician Dr John Bennett. Before bennett got his hands on them, the vast majority of Americans believed that tomatoes were actually poisonous. This helps explain why there were no American tomato condiments before this date.
Bennett gave the tomato a complete public makeover. In a detailed medical paper, he outlined his theory that, far from being poisonous, tomatoes could actually cure everything from diarrhea to jaundice and was particularly good for digestion. He became a vociferous advocate for cooking tomatoes down into a ketchup form. Once they realised it wasn’t going to kill them, people suddenly began to sit up and take notice.
Three years later, an enterprising inventor, Dr Archibald Miles - who was neither a tomato expert nor a doctor - began selling “Dr Miles’ Compound Extract of Tomato”. Miles sold his medicine both as a sauce and as a capsule in an attempt to look more legitimate, and soon built a devoted following. Before long, eager patrons became convinced that small servings of tomato sauce were some sort of condiment cure all.
Despite his early success, Miles soon found himself under intense scrutiny from medical professionals. In the 1840s, it was declared that his new pill was little more than a hoax and that the only thing that the ketchup could be used for was as a surprisingly effective laxative. Though he had helped rehabilitate the tomato, his ketchup capsules were soon dismissed as snake oil.
Although Miles’ ideas were brushed off as rubbish by contemporary scientists, we now know that there may have been a little more to his work that medical fantasy. Tomatoes have since been revealed to contain high levels of healthy lycopene and antioxidants, and are even believed by some to be a key component in preventing cancer. Ketchup might not be the medical marvel it once was, but it’s also clear that there’s more to this sauce than meets the eye.