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More ketchup, please!

It was a rather cold night, and I was sitting in the kitchen,. Having just finished eating my night snack, French fries with ketchup, I let the guilt and shame of calories fill the remaining empty space in my body. Once on the lips, forever on the hips. Where is self-love and body positivity when you need it? And although the intake of carbs is indeed highly important to ponder over, sadly, the anxiety of experiencing the well-known writer’s block resurfaced. The eating break was over, so there was no excuse for why I was not being productive, but still, I was missing this tingle of inspiration that motivates your fingers to dance on the keyboard. I realized that while I was jumping from one thought to the other, my eyes were set on the almost empty Felix ketchup bottle on the table, and a crazy thought was formed, or rather a self-imposed challenge. “If I really want to call myself a Wanna-be Tartuvian Semiotician, then I should be able to get inspired, examine, and write about everything! Even ketchup!”

Well, I could start with the easiest way out and try to think of all the things I associate with this tomato sauce…immediately, the first thing that came to mind was fries, but that was way too easy, and the remaining crumbles of the potato delicacies were still lying in front of me. Thus, it could also be deemed a situational association on top of being extremely obvious. Perhaps the annoyingly infectious and addicting “Ketchup Song (Aserejé)” (Las Ketchup 2002) that dominated the beginning of the new millennium would be another obvious connection; and let’s not forget the personal — but hopefully relatable — association based on phonetics between Ash Ketchum from Pokémon and the famous condiment. However, I was certain there were more layers to uncover, and I was determined to reach the bottom of that bottle!

Potentially, the right approach would be to focus on the visuals of the object, the iconicity, and the formal and structural aspects. The color itself is a giveaway; whether in a transparent bottle made of glass or plastic or in a vibrant red-colored sauce dispenser that you would probably see in a canteen,  there is no doubt in mind, even in the absence of a logo or any kind of sticker, that this is ketchup. Even more so, the emblematic color combination of yellow and red certainly brings to mind the classic duo of ketchup and mustard; just imagine you are watching a Family Feud episode: “We surveyed one hundred people, and the top six answers are on the board. What does the color combination of red and yellow bring to mind? Go!” I’m pretty sure the condiment duo would be there — along with the closely related McDonald’s — and the flag of Spain. However, the red color of ketchup, and more specifically, the exact color that results from the Heinz recipe, has an even more apparent and strong linkage to semiotics.

Heinz was founded by Henry J. Heinz in 1869, and “[s]hortly after the turn of the century, Heinz became the largest tomato ketchup producer” (Smith 1996: 44) while it “presently manufactures thousands of food products in plants on six continents” (Byrne 2021). The company has such a strong brand identity, and their vision was vivid and clear even before fame struck. “By 1890 the company had hit upon the now world-famous combination of the keystone label, the neck band, the screw cap and the octagonal-shaped ketchup bottle” (Smith 1996: 43). Recently, Heinz was under a vicious culinary attack! Restaurants around the world were trying to cut some of their expenses and decided to play imposter games; they would keep the empty bottles of Heinz and refill them with other brands of ketchup or even their own produced condiments (Desreumaux 2023; Keating 2023). The ingenious solution came from Wunder Thompson Turkey (an American-based creative, technological, and consulting communication agency) and their “Is That Heinz?” project. Taking into account the solid and well-established brand image of the company and its most easily identifiable characteristics, they ingeniously decided to frame the sticker of the bottles with the exact PANTONE red that matches the color of the sauce (Wunderman Thompson 2023). Actually, the Pantone color institute had already worked with Heinz US, creating the specific shade of the iconic Heinz ketchup red for the company’s 150th anniversary (Pantone 2020). Thus, ketchup lovers will never be fooled again! If the sticker’s color can blend with the color of the sauce, then you are holding an original Heinz.

But still there are so many things to discuss about ketchup! What about the history of the condiment, the origins and etymology of the name, and its culinary journey across the world? The trivia information that ketchup recipes could be traced back to China, starting from as early as 300 B.C., when its list of ingredients would include a fish’s “intestines, stomach, and bladder,” seems to check out (Butler 2023; Huang 2000: 382-383; Rheenen 2016). And I am happy it does because this makes travelers’ fascination and need to introduce that sauce to their respective countries bizarre and rivetingly interesting.

Although there seems to be an ongoing debate on the etymological roots of what we now know as ‘ketchup’, placing the origins in multiple different dialects, the history of the condiment seems to go like this: Once upon a time in China, fish intestines or soybeans were made into a paste to accompany other less flavored meals. Sailors from Europe, and allegedly specifically from Britain, fell so deeply in love with this tasty innovation that they brought it back to Europe. In the lack of soybeans, and perhaps in hesitation of going for the fish fermentation process, Europeans tried to replicate the taste with different vegetables as the main component, but they kept missing this unique flavor profile. The reason? They didn’t try tomatoes. And no, it is not because tomato is a fruit — I got you there, smartie — but because poor tomatoes were the villains around that time in Europe. Apparently, aristocrats who fancied their meals on pewter plates were getting poisoned after consuming tomatoes. That information along with the lack of knowledge that it was not the fruit itself but the chemical reaction of tomatoes’ natural acids mixing with the lead of the plates, freaked out entire populations (Butler 2023; Garrison 2023; Rheenen 2016), and tomatoes became fructus non grata! Thus, the courageous Americans came to the rescue and fearlessly put tomatoes into the mix, which brought that exquisite sought-after umami tone to the condiment. As Malcolm Gladwell stated in his ketchup article (specifically praising Heinz):

The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this? (Gladwell 2004: 132)

I could also consider talking about the physics, gravity flow, pressure, and consistency of ketchup and its bottles (yes, they have been scientifically studied), but first of all, this goes way beyond my realm of interest; it strays away from the semiotic path I want to strut on, and more than that, this almost poetic description by Gladwell, already made my mind drift towards the ideology behind the object of my analysis. How about the fact that despite this rich flavor profile, the umami taste, and the aromas of the condiment you would never find ketchup in a high-class fancy restaurant? I mean, probably the chefs there know better than to underestimate the value of such a culinary masterpiece. However, they also have to think about the customers’ expectations, the image they must uphold, and their service’s authenticity. That is why I find it more probable that when a chic alpaca with a top hat and a monocle would go to a place as such, they would serve instead tomato foam with raindrops of vinegar in an infusion of cloves and cumin and spheres of onion and garlic. They would probably even charge for it as much as a couple stocks of Heinz’s dynasty. On the other hand, Ketchup is for the common alpaca; it is for the lower and middle class, for canteens and fast-food chains. From the supermarket to your fridge, and then with that characteristic squirt sound, ‘plts’, on your plate. Ketchup is there to make your potatoes jump in a pool of happiness before they dive into your mouth, to be placed on top of pasta and deeply offend your Italian friends, or similarly to dip sushi in and insult your Japanese companion. Ketchup is standing next to you when, as a kid, you hate the thought of broccoli and other weird-looking meals that are allegedly important for your growth, and it covers them up until you get accustomed to their taste (see Pliner and Stallberg-White 2000). Ketchup is a pal, and always brings a smile to your face — unless you are allergic or something.

With that last thought, I run my finger over the tip of the dispenser and tasted the drop that was left hanging before closing the lid. I gave a playful squeeze to the bottle and placed it in its place on the fridge door. It was almost empty… I should get more tomorrow. ~ The Brave Alpaca

Photo: Fernando Andrade


Butler, Stephanie 2023. The surprisingly ancient history of ketchup. History. Retrieved from:

Byrne, Brendan 2021. Heinz set for shareholder vote. Value Walk. Retrieved from:

Desreumaux, Geoff 2023. Heinz turns to Pantone to fight ‘Ketchup Fraud’. Wersm. Retrieved from:

Garrison, Cianna 2023. The real reason why tomatoes were once feared. Reader’s Digest. Retrieved from:

Gladwell, Malcolm 2004. The ketchup conundrum. New Yorker. September 6th 2004. pp: 128-135.

Huang, H. T. (2000). Fermentations and food science [part 5]. In: Needham, Joseph (ed.) Science and Civilisation in China: Biology and Biological Technology [Volume 6]. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Keating, Claire 2023. Ketchup fraudsters stopped red in their tracks. Marks and Clerk. Retrieved from:

Las Ketchup 2002. The Ketchup Song (Aserejé). Hijas del Tomate.

Pantone [@pantone] 2020. The Pantone Color Institute collaborated with @HeinzKetchup_US in honor of their 150th anniversary to create Heinz 57 Red, a custom red shade emblematic of the enticing appetizing arousing juicy red color found in Heinz’s iconic signature ketchup. [Tweet]. Twitter. Retrieved from:

Pliner, P.; Stallberg-White, C. 2000. “Pass the ketchup, please”: familiar flavors increase children’s willingness to taste novel foods. Appetite, 34 (1): 95-103.

Rheenen, Erik van 2016. 11 ketchup facts that go well with everything. Mental Floss. Retrieved from:

Smith, Andrew F. 1996. Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment – with recipes. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. Wunderman Thompson 2023. Is that Heinz? Wunderman Thompson. Retrieved from:

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