Catchup-22: Tasters rank Heinz Ketchup near bottom but praise its organic brand

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"Is There A New King of Ketchup?"

Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette photos
Pittsburgh palates can't be wrong.
Click photo for larger image.

Our panel of tasters

Laura Cooper, 25,
of Imperial.

Teresa Eckberg, 37,
of Canonsburg.

Stuart Helbus, 31,
of Moon.

David Pilarski, 52,
of the South Side.

Darlene Pilarski, 48,
of the South Side.

Sharon Schneider, 45,
of Crafton Heights.

Randy Tozzie, 43,
of Carnegie.

Jenny Ziegler, 47,
of Shaler.

The headline in the July-August issue of Cook's Illustrated, the Consumer Reports of food magazines, was a real shocker, not to mention the story itself: In a blind testing, Heinz Ketchup ranked near the bottom of the list -- "too sweet," "bland" -- while arch-rival Hunt's Ketchup was the winner -- "tangy," "fresh," "well-balanced."

But Cook's Illustrated's editors are from Boston. What do they know?

Two weeks ago, we got a group of real Pittsburghers -- eight readers who volunteered to serve as tasters -- together to get a second opinion. Weaned on Heinz since babyhood, surely these folks would gravitate toward the taste they knew best, and blow those stuffy Cook's Illustrated Bostonians out of the water.

Ours was not a scientific study. There were no clear winners or losers. We had no "viscosity meters," those little gadgets that the Cook's Illustrated folks used to measure thickness, nor did we employ the services of a laboratory to measure sugar, vinegar or tomato content.

This was just a bunch of regular Pittsburghers sitting around a table, who, with the help of hot french fries from the Post-Gazette's snack bar and plenty of Coke, spent the better part of an hour dipping into six little cups of ketchup (marked by number, not by name), chewing, sipping, and dipping some more.

The results produced bad and good news for Pittsburgh's hometown brand.

Heinz's Ketchup consistently posted mediocre scores, ranking mostly in the bottom half of the six brands tested, with five tasters ranking it in fourth place; two ranking it in third place; and one in fifth place.

"Thinner than the others," wrote one taster. "Least flavorful," wrote another. "Not really 'there.' Missing something. Bland taste," wrote still another.

More bad news for Heinz: Its arch-rival, Hunt's, ranked near the top, with two first places, five second places and one third, prompting comments such as "good tomato flavor," "tasty," and "creamy."

But there was a bright spot for Heinz, too, and perhaps a harbinger of things to come: Its organic brand, which the company introduced in 2002, won four first places, one second place, two third places and one fourth place. It scored well above the two other organic brands, Annie's and Muir Glen, which mostly ranked near or at the bottom.

According to the ketchup's label, Heinz's organic version is produced at its Leamington, Canada, facility, "using red-ripened tomatoes from the company's organic tomato fields in Escalon, Calif." It's available at some, but not all, Giant Eagle supermarkets locally.

It's also developed quite a following on the Internet. At Chowhound.com, tasters pronounced it "a miracle: the only product that has bested the original version."


Randy Tozzie checks out a sample of ketchup in a blind taste test.
Click photo for larger image.
Teresa Eckberg was among our tasters.
Click photo for larger image.

Still, the Post-Gazette tasters seemed dismayed to hear about the anemic performance of Heinz's regular ketchup, since, as loyal Pittsburghers, they all declared at the outset they wanted it to win.

"Get out!" said Darlene Pilarski, her jaw dropping, when told of the results.

In the interests of full disclosure: Mr. Tozzie, 43, of Carnegie, arrived for the tasting at the Post-Gazette wearing a white Giant Eagle "Market District" jacket -- a surprise since, on his application, he said only that he worked in "the food industry." We were tempted to throw him out but let him stay, figuring there was no way he'd know which ketchup was which.

Still, he was also the only one in the group to choose Giant Eagle's house brand as his favorite, describing it as having "great consistency, richness and color."

Was the fix in? Not likely, since Mr. Tozzie seemed almost dismayed by his choices, especially when he learned that he'd given good reviews to Hunt's, which he said he had always refused to buy because "I thought it tasted terrible."

"I'm embarrassed. I was sure I'd be able to pick out Heinz," he added.

Robin Teets, a spokesman for Heinz, shrugged off the results.

"There've been a number of taste tests of our ketchup over the years, and sometimes we turn out on top, sometimes we don't," he said. The company conducts its own in-house testing, and "those tests found statistically significant preference for Heinz versus a top competitor. That tells us we are certainly in the top tier and we are the preferred ketchup."

Indeed, the Heinz mystique extends far and wide: Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine who recently visited Pittsburgh, says her husband Michael "could eat nothing but hamburgers every day, and we always have Heinz in the refrigerator. When I buy him non-Heinz, he won't touch it."

But in the end, ketchup is just ketchup, isn't it?

Not really. For Americans, ketchup always contains tomatoes and vinegar and some kind of sweetener, along with spices, "but the relative quantities of those main ingredients can differ quite a bit," said Robert L. Wolke, professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the two-volume "What Einstein Told His Cook," which he wrote with his wife, Post-Gazette food writer Marlene Parrish.

Indeed, Heinz claims to have "a stronger vinegar profile" than other brands, says Mr. Teets. "That's a Heinz trademark, and that's what we're known for."

Thickness, too, was one of the qualities Heinz has long sought to associate itself with -- remember Carly Simon bawling out "Annn-ti-ci-pa-tion" in the company's commercials as the Heinz ketchup inched out of the bottle? Hunt's, too, touts its ketchup's slow-moving properties right on the label.

Americans like the idea of a thick ketchup, says Mr. Wolke, "because they associate it with being 'rich,' whatever that means, and having lots of 'stuff' in it."

But -- and this, he cautioned, is a decidedly personal and non-scientific observation -- "Heinz seems thinner than it used to be," although the company's spokesman says the formula has not changed. Nonetheless, the quality of Heinz's ketchup even played a role in the recent, and nasty, proxy fight that saw two dissidents win seats on the company's board. The gadflies complained that Heinz's use of corn syrup over cane sugar -- a change made more than two decades ago -- undermined the quality of Heinz's iconic product and reflected a management more concerned with pricing and packaging than the product itself.

So go ahead, run out and buy that Hunt's Ketchup, or the Heinz organic, and see for yourself which is richer, thicker or more tomato-y.

That is, if you can find them.

Locating Hunt's in Pittsburgh for this tasting was like locating sunshine here in February. It wasn't for sale at Giant Eagle's Market District in Shadyside or at the independently owned Giant Eagle at Edgewood Towne Centre. Or at Whole Foods Market in East Liberty, for that matter. After searching high and low, we finally found a few bottles on a bottom shelf at the Shop 'N Save in Lawrenceville.

Some independently owned Giant Eagle stores carry Hunt's, but the brand is not sold at any corporate-owned Giant Eagle stores in Pittsburgh, said spokesman Dick Roberts. Hunt's can be found, however, at Giant Eagle's corporate-owned stores in Cleveland, where, presumably, customers don't hanker after ketchup that carries the same name as the Steelers' stadium.

"It's really all based on customer demand," said Mr. Roberts. "We stock and sell what people want. It's about giving people choices, but also about giving them what they're looking for. And people are asking and looking for Heinz Ketchup."

In fact, all the taste-testing in the world can't make a dyed-in-the-wool Pittsburgher switch loyalties. Despite ranking the organic Heinz first and Hunt's second, "I'll probably still use Heinz's regular brand," confessed Mr. Pilarski, 52, of the South Side. "Hey, I've been a Pittsburgher all my life, and I just can't see making a change like that."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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