Heinz fans can be ketchup snobs.
The condiment's Facebook page has more than 390,000 fans, including Rona Doyle, who recently wrote, "Heinz only -- all others are garbage and a perfectly good waste of tomatoes," and Wendy Gottorff, whose father was buried with a bottle of Heinz ketchup. Another Facebook page called, "Heinz Ketchup Is The Only Ketchup," has almost 5,500 fans since being launched in January.
These are the people who threaten to walk out of restaurants if Hunt's is served.
That loyalty could be tested this summer.
Pittsburgh-based H.J. Heinz Co. is messing around with the recipe for its flagship product, reducing the sodium content in a move that the company described as the first "significant" change in the nation's dominant brand of the tomato-based condiment in nearly 40 years.
A little more than a week ago, employees began cooking up the new version. Bottles of reformulated Heinz ketchup are expected to start appearing, quietly, in grocery stores this summer.
Don't expect splashy announcements on the labels or anything. That's not in the plan, a company spokeswoman said.
Heinz is moving carefully but with confidence that consumers will be OK with the new recipe initially developed at its research center in Marshall.
"The initial consumer taste tests were conducted in Pittsburgh, before we expanded to six cities across the U.S., to ensure the recipe met our consumers' expectations," said Jessica Jackson, a company spokeswoman.
If Pittsburghers don't know how the ketchup made by the company founded more than a century ago in Sharpsburg should taste, they might want to turn in their Steelers license plate holders and Penguins jerseys. Or at least they should know the flavor of the U.S. version. The food company has long offered different versions around the world, tailored to local tastes.
There's always some risk in tinkering with a well-known -- even beloved -- product. Marketers shudder when they remember the New Coke scenario, in which the Coca-Cola company touted its improved flavor only to have some consumers demand a return of the original.
Heinz may not have had a lot of choice in this case, as the trends in the food industry have been toward less salt. Health experts worry about the effects on the population of consuming too much sodium, which has been implicated in high blood pressure and heart disease.
In late 2007, Heinz was one of a number of companies represented at a meeting to discuss what the United Kingdom's Food Standards Agency was doing to reduce salt use, and in 2008 the Daily Mail in London reported Heinz ketchup and Kellogg's cornflakes were among a long list of foods under pressure to reduce sodium. In April, the company was on a list of 16 food companies cited by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as having committed to cutting salt levels in their products.
The new version of Heinz ketchup will have 15 percent less salt, dropping from 190 mg of sodium per serving to 160 mg, said Ms. Jackson. Consumers will need to check the Nutrition Facts Panel on the back of the label to notice the change, she said.
The company said the move would make Heinz ketchup the lowest-sodium ketchup available nationally, a necessary distinction since there are several niche ketchup products available. Heinz itself offers organic, reduced sugar and no salt added varieties, and is developing a new version called Simply Heinz that will be made with sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.
Although Heinz ketchup fans leave little doubt that they know what they want, Americans in general seem conflicted about the salt issue. In April, market research firm NPD Group reported that Americans were concerned about the amount of sodium in their diets but that the number who actually are consuming low-sodium and sodium-free foods was down.
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2018.