For some people, ketchup is a symbol of the problems with American food. They find it highly processed, mass-produced, and full of sugar. Historian Gabriella Petrick certainly saw it that way when she started digging into the archives of the H. J. Heinz Company.
"I'll be honest, I came to my subject as a complete food snob and jerk," she says. "I was going to show how awful Americans eat, and how terrible industrial food was!"
When Henry Heinz started his company in the late 1800s, there were all kinds of ketchup: walnut ketchup; grape ketchup; tomato ketchup. But over time, Heinz's version of tomato ketchup took over. "The company crafted a very particular product that now reshapes what we think of as ketchup," Petrick says.
It was a captivating mix of tomato sauce, sugar, vinegar and spices. Above all, it was thick and red. You couldn't make anything like it yourself. In fact, maybe you didn't really want to make it yourself. "Women used to make ketchup at home," Petrick says. "Why make watery ketchup when you can simply buy high-quality, super-thick ketchup?"
Petrick isn't quite so judgy about industrial foods anymore. "A lot of these products, I just learned to understand how important they were for people's lives, and how they made people's lives easier — women's lives in particular," she says.
Today, Kraft Heinz sells about 70% of America's ketchup, and it all comes from just two factories, one in Fremont, Ohio, and the other in Muscatine, Iowa.
But in Los Banos, the center of tomato growing, Hector Osorno has set up a miniature version of those factories, just for research purposes. It's a room filled with stainless steel pipes and pumps and cooking vessels.
He and his colleagues use it to check the quality of the tomato paste that's being supplied to the company's big ketchup factories. "Every day, I'm making 18 batches!" Osorno says. "If we detect something that [the factories] didn't, we immediately notify them."
He's checking the ketchup so we don't have to.