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Hilde Lee: Don't get greedy with ketchup packets these days

Hilde Lee: Don't get greedy with ketchup packets these days

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What do you usually put on your hamburger, your French fries — and maybe your scrambled eggs — at home or when you eat at a restaurant? Ketchup. Of course. Whoops — there is no ketchup bottle or those little packets of ketchup on the table.

Most of last week, the print news and the TV had stories about the shortage of ketchup. One story reported that wholesale prices of the Kraft Heinz ketchup packets had gone up 70%. It seems that it was easy to just grab a handful of ketchup packets on your way out of the restaurant.

Ketchup is the most-consumed added food sauce at U.S. restaurants, with 300,000 tons being sold last year. Even more ketchup is added to food prepared at home. Last year, the pandemic pushed retail ketchup sales 15% higher than the previous year.

Kraft Heinz is the biggest producer of ketchup. Heinz has 70% of the US retail market, but could not keep up with the demand.

According to news reports, the company plans to open two more manufacturing lines this month and more after that. This will increase production of the ketchup packets by about 25% to 12 billion packets a year. Kraft Heinz is already running extra shifts at its plants. The company also invented a “no-touch” ketchup dispenser to help meet the demand for COVID-safe alternatives to the big bottles of ketchup.

A large restaurant chain in Denver panicked: “How can we serve French fries without Heinz ketchup?” Some restaurant owners said they have been continually shorted on their ketchup orders. “Nowadays you only get two packets of ketchup going through a drive-through. Sometimes, you don’t get any.” Restaurants even have signs that tell the customer they “provide condiments only on request and for a single use.”

Heinz Ketchup evokes loyalty. Earlier this year, many Texas Roadhouse locations started running short of Heinz bottles, causing them to scout around for substitutes. Last year, the Roadhouses went through 55 million ounces of ketchup.

The owner of one of the Roadhouse restaurants panicked when he found out that there was no Heinz ketchup. “How can we serve French fries without Heinz ketchup?” he said, almost in tears. The servers apologized to the customers and life went on.

How did this craze for ketchup come about? “Ke-tsiap,” a spicy pickled fish condiment, was popular in 17th-century China. It has had various spellings. British seamen brought the ketsiap home. Throughout the years, the formula was changed to contain anything from nuts to mushrooms.

It was not until the late 1700s that inventive New Englanders added tomatoes to the ketsiap blend and it became ketchup. Vinegar gives ketchup its tang, while sugar, salt, and spices add additional flavor. Ketchup is also used as an ingredient in many dishes.

Ketchup has many variations. In Indonesia, it is a very sweet soy sauce called katjap. The Western reference to ketchup first appeared in 1690. Legend tells us that a taste for the sauce first came back to Europe with a seaman who had traveled to Singapore.

When these Asian sauces made their way to Europe and eventually America, they changed into salty, spicy condiments not based on fish brine, but on walnuts, mushrooms, oysters and cucumbers. Many different spices have been added or used over the years.

On the 100th birthday of the United States, Henry J. Heinz began producing ketchup commercially in one of his factories. The American addition to this unique sauce was tomatoes. That was probably the Mexican influence, as tomatoes were widely grown in the Southwest.

I think one of the factors that makes ketchup so appealing to the food industry is its quick method of production. It typically takes one day from the picking of the tomatoes to the bottling of the sauce, maybe two days. After the tomatoes’ stems and seeds are removed, the tomato pulp is cooked in large vats to evaporate the water. It takes five pounds of tomatoes to make a 32-ounce bottle of ketchup.

When the tomatoes are cooked to the desired consistency, sugar, salt, vinegar and flavoring are added. Onion and garlic are the most common flavorings.

Food experts recommend a maximum storage time of three or four months for ketchup after the bottle is opened. After that time, ketchup will darken and lose some of its flavor.

Even with shortages during this pandemic, we must be considerate of others. Please don’t take all the ketchup packets the next time you eat out.

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