How we tested
It’s no secret that Americans love ketchup. We spend almost half a billion dollars on it every year, according to Chicago-based market research firm SymphonyIRI Group. Since the 1980s, most ketchup has been made with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS); manufacturers like this ingredient because it’s cheap and easy to mix with other ingredients. But in the past few years, HFCS has been blamed (loudly) for rising obesity rates and other health problems, so many manufacturers now offer alternatives, such as ketchup made with white sugar.
Last year, the ketchup that topped our 2006 ketchup tasting was reformulated, with sugar replacing the HFCS. In 2010, Heinz—America’s bestselling ketchup by an overwhelming margin—launched Simply Heinz, its own sugar spinoff. (It still sells its classic version, sweetened with corn syrup and HFCS.) Agave nectar, derived from the agave plant (the spiky succulent from which tequila is also distilled), sweetens Organicville ketchup, now the ninth bestselling national brand. All this sweetener swapping means that it’s time for us to taste and rate ketchup again.
In choosing eight national brands, we focused on classic tomato ketchups—no curried or spicy riffs. Then we gathered 21 editors and test cooks from America’s Test Kitchen to try each sample plain and with fries. We also sent an unopened bottle of each brand to the lab for analysis, so we could get to the bottom of our results. At the tasting table, it became clear that our tasters wanted ketchup that tasted the way they remembered it from childhood: salty and boldly seasoned, with all the flavor elements—salt, sweet, tang, and tomato—assertive yet harmonious. Offending samples were scolded: “Does not please my inner child.” (Our in-house poll revealed that the majority of tasters grew up with Heinz.)
After we tallied up the scores, we noticed that, sure enough, our top three winners were all sweetened with sugar, not corn syrup. Corn syrup is a thick liquid sweetener made by putting wet cornstarch through a process that converts starches to sugar. HFCS undergoes additional processing to convert dextrose to sweeter fructose. It is then mixed with regular corn syrup until the desired sweetness is reached.
Whether HFCS really is the culprit for obesity is a subject of fierce debate. But it was clear that, given a choice (and assuming the ketchups’ balance and general tastiness), our tasters preferred sugar. Why? Maybe because people perceive that sugar has a cleaner, purer sweetness, according to our science editor. Corn syrup (and HFCS), he added, can exhibit off-flavors from the cornstarch and from the manufacturing process. The two ketchups that included corn syrup sat right in the middle of the pack.
So how to understand that two of the lowest-ranking brands were also sweetened with sugar? In those cases, other factors had more impact: The low-rankers were pasty or watery, they had too little salt, or they had too much clove.
As for agave nectar, it was a “no go” for our tasters. The brand sweetened with agave scored dead last in our lineup. Tasters found it “cloyingly sweet” and undersalted, with a “funky” texture.
Tasters also liked ketchups that had enough acid to balance the sugar. Our lab tested each ketchup for salt and pH; the latter measures the acidity—the higher the number, the less acidic the ketchup. Our two lowest-ranked ketchups had the least acidity. Our favorite had the highest percentage of salt.
Our two top-rated ketchups were virtually tied for first place. Tasters ever-so-slightly preferred one for its “bright and fresh” flavor, calling it “tangy, salty, smooth” and “full bodied.” It is almost three times as expensive as the runner-up, though, which lost by a nose and also uses sugar. Our runner-up is also our Best Buy; it offers flavor—and value.
We wondered how our winner differs from our third place finisher. But for the organic ingredients, they are the same, a company spokesman told us. So how to account for their different rankings, given that many studies have found no definitive difference in the taste of organic versus ordinary tomatoes? Our lab results indicated that the organic version was actually slightly saltier and slightly tangier.