Serious Eats

Taste Test: The Best Ketchup

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

The Winners!

  • #1: Heinz Organic
  • #2: Heinz
  • #3: Annie's Naturals
  • Best Buy: Del Monte

Before we begin, some quick education. Here are three fun ketchup facts:

Everyone got that? Good.

For most of us, Heinz is the default ketchup of choice, the one we compare all other ketchups to. It makes sense; the company dominates 60% of the entire ketchup market. But that doesn't mean that there aren't other options out there, and—at least in our local market—Heinz tends to be one of the more expensive brands on the shelf, priced at about 150% compared to its closest comparable competitor.

Add on to this the recent backlash against high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)—the sweetener of choice for ketchup manufacturers since at least the mid 80's—and the accompanying influx of both organic brands and brands made with non-HFCS sweeteners, and you've got a few other variables to contend with.

Could one of these cheaper or non-HFCS bottles be worth squeezing on our hot dogs or dipping our fries into?

The Contenders

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We picked 10 nationally available brands for our taste test. We tasted only classic tomato ketchups. Flavored ketchups, spicy ketchups, curried ketchups, etc, were not included. Five were organic, the other five were not. All ketchups were tasted double-blind, side by side, with french fries for dipping.

Criteria and Results

Our panel of tasters was asked to evaluate each ketchup considering its sweetness, tartness, and overall flavor. A good ketchup should be boldly seasoned with salt and sugar, but with enough acidity in it that it does not become cloying.

When the results were scored up, tasters showed a strong preference for brands with a higher perceived tartness—our top three winners were also the top three tartest brands according to our palates.

Texture was also an issue. Smooth, glossy, creamy ketchups were strongly preferred over pulpy, loose, or wet-tasting ketchups. Similarly, we liked our ketchups clean-tasting. Too many spices or competing flavors quickly pushed a few contenders to the bottom of the pile.

Recommended

#1: Heinz Organiic (6.7/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.20
Sweetener: Sugar

Most tasters were convinced that the regular Heinz would win the taste test, but the organic version, made with real sugar instead of HFCS barely edged out its more long-lived non-organic counterpart. "Smooth and tart," "this tastes like normal," and "good body" were some comments. It's 25% more expensive than the standard Heinz, so your budget might dictate passing it up if you are a big ketchup-eater. But not to worry, the regular Heinz trailed by just a couple percentage points.

#2: Heinz 6.5/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.16
Sweetener: High fructose corn syrup

"This is iconic ketchup," was the general sentiment. "Sweet, vinegary, and not too tomatoey." Turns out that with ketchup, a strong tomato flavor is not necessarily a good thing. Balance of sweetness and plenty of sharp acidity are the trump cards we look for. "This has a familiar essential ketchupiness."

Good In A Pinch

#3: Annie's Naturals (6.2/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.24
Sweetener: Sugar

"I like this—it's a little sweet for me, but tart enough to back it up." Between this and Heinz's two offerings, most tasters had trouble distinguishing the difference. All three had that familiar, not-too-tomatoey flavor laced with a hint of onion, allspice, and cloves.

But at 20% more pricey than our winner Heinz Organic, we have trouble truly recommending this brand.

#4: Del Monte (5.7/10, BEST BUY!)

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Cost per Ounce: $.07
Sweetener: High fructose corn syrup

A decently balanced ketchup that was comparable to our higher-ranked winners in terms of flavor profile, it lost a few points from tasters in its overall score because it's a little too thin compared to the glossy, creamy Heinz and Annie's. But at less then half the price of Heinz, it's our Best Buy. If you're planning on having one of these parties where you fill up the kiddie pool with ketchup and ask everyone to bring their own nuggets, Del Monte is the brand to go with.

#5: America's Choice (5.4/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.11
Sweetener: High fructose corn syrup

A slight aftertaste of Worcestershire sauce was noted by a few tasters, as well as a lack of real creaminess in its texture. "Molasses and smoke," is how one taster described it. Still, most of us would happily dip our fries in it.

#6: Hunt's (5.4/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.11
Sweetener: High fructose corn syrup

Heinz' biggest competitor didn't really stack up in our taste test. It had a decent "smooth consistency" and "nice tartness," but this was one case where too much vinegar ended up working against it. It was our tartest scoring brand, with one taster saying, "it tastes like the whole vinegar bottle fell into this batch." Too bad, because it had decent tomatoey flavor.

#7: Trader Joe's (5.2/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.08
Sweetener: Sugar

"This tastes like Worcestershire sauce," said one taster. Others agreed. While it was nice and tomatoey, it had a slightly gritty texture and an overwhelming sweetness that wasn't balanced by enough acidity.

Not Recommended

#8: Muir Glen (4.5/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.15
Sweetener: Sugar

"Sweet, thinned-out tomato paste." All sweetness, no tartness, with a lumpy, barely-pureed texture. Some didn't mind this more "natural" texture, while others said simply, "THIS IS BAD."

#9: Organicville (4.0/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.21
Sweetener: Agave nectar

"This is like a health brand," said one taster of its "naturally tomato sweet" flavor. The only one made with agave nectar, there was something off about its sweetness—a hint of bitterness on the back of the tongue—that turned us off. "Lumpy. Too sweet. Blugh."

#10: Whole Foods 365 (3.3/10)

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Cost per Ounce: $.07
Sweetener: Sugar

Oh, Whole Foods, when-oh-when will your 365 come up with a product that doesn't score near the bottom of our taste test? An overwhelming amount of cloves, a thin viscosity, and a pulpy texture with cloying sweetness produced a range of reactions from "strange!" or "something tastes funny..." to simply "eww" and "yuck." It's a ketchup even ketchup lovers couldn't get behind.

Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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