Catching up with ketchup's new flavors

January 30, 2002|By Rob Kasper

WHETHER WE like it or not, we are categorized by the type of car we drive, the neighborhood we live in, the music we listen to. Now, if certain people in Pittsburgh are right, a new indicator of cutting-edge status in America will be the kind of ketchup we squeeze.

If we prefer our ketchup red, tomatoey and, let's be frank here, a bit bland, then we are, in the view of the condiment cognoscenti, very old school. Moreover, we might be repressing our "unmet flavor needs."

That is what the ketchup research gurus at the H.J. Heinz Co. up in Pittsburgh say. These are people who have actually conducted focus groups all around the country probing our feelings about condiments. During their probe, they uncovered a lot of yearnings in the adult segment of the ketchup-using populace.

"Our research indicated that adults have an unmet need for flavor and variety in everyday foods," said Jeff Beamon, a product manager and one of the top tomatoes at Heinz.

As happens in this country when a company detects an unmet need, Heinz responded by creating new products to sell. In February three new kinds of flavored Heinz ketchup, Zesty Garlic, Hot & Spicy, and Smokey Mesquite, will show up in America's grocery stores and ketchup dispensaries.

What they do that everyday ketchup doesn't is "change the personality of a dish from boring to bold." At least that is what Beamon and his colleague Michael Mullen claimed in a recent telephone interview from Pittsburgh.

Not surprisingly, the Heinz guys characterized in glowing terms the kind of people who want to squirt juiced-up ketchup on their food. They described them as the type of people who "want to experience everything life has to offer." They are "flavor-cravers," Beamon said, condiment thrill seekers.

If the ketchup guys in Pittsburgh sound a little cocky, it is because they are on a roll.

A year ago they shook up the same-old, same-old expectations of the ketchup-consuming public by changing the color of the stuff inside the bottle. In addition to traditional red, there was now a green and a purple. Moreover, just before Christmas, labels of these different-looking creations began sporting images of characters from the Dr. Seuss story How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Grinch was on the label of the green bottle, Max the dog on the purple bottle and Cindy Lou Who on the bottle holding the red.

The colored condiments -- technically the Food and Drug Administration says they can't be ketchup unless they are red -- were a success, especially among the young crowd. That is an important segment of the ketchup-consuming world because more than half of ketchup sold in America is eaten by kids under 13 years old.

In Baltimore, when three bottles of colored condiments showed up a few months ago at snack time at the Bolton Hill Nursery School, the 4- and 5-year-olds of Villoo Nowrojee's class quickly put them through a taste test.

The kids dipped crackers in the various hues and voted for their favorite by announcing the name of the Dr. Seuss character representing their chosen ketchup. Max, the purple condiment, was the winner.

The other day, when I relayed the Baltimore nursery-school finding to the Heinz guys, they told me that there was no difference between the flavor of their purple, green or red concoctions.

True ketchup research would show that the kids were voting for their favorite color or favorite character, they said. True ketchup research, they continued, would have blindfolded the kids when they tasted the different-colored options. They may be right. But in my experience, if you put a blindfold on a 5-year-old and put him near ketchup, what you end up with is not research, but a mess.

The change in the kids' segment of the ketchup market rolled over to the adult market, the Heinz guys said. After changing the color of ketchup they were beset, they said, with pleas from adults asking them to put more zip in their lives, specifically on their hamburgers, hot dogs and french fries. These are the three "host foods" that ketchup is most often squirted on. So the fired-up ketchups were born.

I sampled these New-Age ketchups the other night on a grilled hamburger. The mesquite-flavored ketchup smelled inviting, but its smoky component tasted chemical. The spicy ketchup flavored with Tabasco sauce was not bad on a burger but probably would have tasted better on raw oysters. The garlic-flavored ketchup would be happy on french fries, I think.

Ketchup historians like to point out that the condiment has led various lives, evolving from a 17th-century Chinese fish sauce to the smooth tomato syrup that has oozed over American foods since the early 1900s.

Given that, I suppose that it was inevitable that my old mellow friend, red tomatoey ketchup, would one day get modern, hot and smoky. I am, however, worried where this is leading. Can purple ketchup on sushi be far behind?

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