Thicker globs of ketchup


Ketchup lovers, the news is good.

Sort of.

The thicker the ketchup, the better you like it, market researchers have long known, and some proposed new grading rules favor the production of thicker ketchup.

But will it ever get any easier to shake your favorite condiment out of the bottle? No time soon, it seems.

Food processors have asked the U.S. Agriculture Department to raise the thickness, or viscosity, levels in all three grades of ketchup, with Grade A the thickest. But there's no sign bottles will be redesigned to help you get the ketchup out.

Actually, ketchup already is thicker than it used to be and the proposed new grades would simply reflect this, said USDA official Mel Horst. Newer, denser tomatoes, developed especially for processing, are yielding thicker ketchup.

And don't think for a minute that this is just someone's casual observation. Nope. The serious business of measuring ketchup's viscosity is the job of a gadget invented to do just that.

It's the Bostwick consistometer, and here's how it works: A glob of ketchup -- a precisely measured glob, of course -- is dropped into the consistometer's container. When the sides are released, the ketchup flows out onto a flat surface and the distance it flows is carefully measured. The less space the ketchup covers, the thicker it's judged to be.

The Bostwick consistometer will get a workout testing ketchups for the proposed new grades. However, the grades' only real impact probably would be in awarding government ketchup contracts (for schools, the military, etc.), said Harry Carroll of H. J. Heinz. The new grades will have little or no impact on supermarket shelves, he said.

Heinz, the country's biggest ketchup producer with 50 percent of the market, was not among those requesting the new grades, Mr. Carroll said.

Thick or not, ketchup isn't likely to show up soon in wide-mouthed bottles for easier removal -- at least not from Heinz. Heinz tried those bottles on a small scale back in the early 1970s, but they didn't catch on, Mr. Carroll said.

Market researchers have theorized narrow-necked containers sell better precisely because it's harder to get the ketchup out of them -- giving consumers the impression of thicker ketchup.

Today about 65 percent of ketchup is sold in squeeze-able plastic bottles with narrow openings, Mr. Carroll said, and the rest in the traditional, narrow, glass bottles.

If ketchup seems like a 20th century phenomenon, think again. Heinz has been making bottled ketchup since 1876; other versions have been around much longer. The word comes from the Chinese "ket-tsiap," or "pickled fish sauce," which English sailors picked up in the 1600s, according to "The Dictionary of American Food and Drink," by John Mariani.

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