Ketchup, Hold the HFCS

No matter where you stand on the issue, last week’s news about two studies linking high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and mercury probably has you thinking about what lurks behind the refrigerator door and those kitchen cabinets. HFCS figures into the soda we drink, as well as candy, ice cream and various dairy products, baked goods, snacks, cereals, frozen food and all kinds of processed food that comes in a can or a bottle. According to “Not So Sweet,” one of the aforementioned studies published by the Institute of Agricultural and Trade Policy, Americans consumed 9,294 tons of HFCS in 2002, the most recent figures available based on U.S. Census Bureau data. TONS. It makes food sweet all right, but it also acts a preservative, which is probably why that bottle of ketchup in the refrigerator door is still kicking.

Homemade HFSC-free ketchup. (Kim O'Donnel)

Some diehards might argue that HFCS is why ketchup tastes so good in the first place. Well, yeah, if that’s the only way you’ve ever had America’s beloved “vegetable.” But what if I told you there’s a way to get your tomato-y condiment without the controversy? That you can make your own ketchup in your kitchen -- not a lab -- and it positively rocks the house down.

Ketchup with a personality -- what a novel concept. I can actually taste the spices infused with the tomato, onion and green chile mixture, and instead of HFCS sweetening the pot, it’s brown sugar, baby.

Start to finish, you need about 90 minutes, then additional time for cooling and setting up in the fridge. It won’t be thick like you remember as a kid, but it will bring new meaning to your burgers, franks, hash browns and whatever else needs a ketchuppy lift.

From the February 2009 issue of Saveur
KOD notes in parentheses

4 whole cloves
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
¼ teaspoon celery seeds
¼ teaspoon chile flakes
¼ teaspoon whole allspice
2 pounds tomatoes, roughly chopped (I used a 28-ounce can of tomato puree)
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ cup white vinegar (I used white wine vinegar)
5 tablespoons brown sugar
1 medium onion, chopped
1 anaheim chile, chopped (I couldn’t get my hands on one, so used a poblano chile in its place)

1 clove garlic
Tools: cheesecloth

Wrap cloves, bay leaf, cinnamonm, celery seeds, chile flakes and allspice in a layer of cheesecloth; tie into a bundle and put into a four-quart saucepan over medium-high heat along with tomatoes, salt, vinegar, sugar, onion and Anaheim chile. Smash garlic and add. Cook mixture until onions and chiles are very soft, about 40 minutes, stirring along the way.

Remove spice bundle and puree sauce in a blender or food processor until smooth. (A hand-held immersion blender would work here as well..) Note: Be careful of spattering, as sauce is hot. I used a towel to cover opening of food processor.

Strain sauce through a mesh sieve. Pour strained sauce into a four-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Add more salt, sugar or vinegar, if you like.

Transfer ketchup to a glass jar. Set aside and let cool. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for up to three weeks.

Makes 2- 2 ½ cups.

By Kim ODonnel |  February 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Discoveries
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What keeps ketchup from spoiling has more to do with its vinegar content than with anything else. The 19th century food revolution wrought by Henry Heinz was based on the use of ripe tomatoes coupled with the use of vinegar as both a flavoring agent and preservative. In effect, Heinz pickled the tomatoes in his sauce to assure the product's long life. Heinz remains a leading producer of both tomato ketchup and vinegar.

Posted by: valerieprintemps | February 4, 2009 7:21 AM

I have been anti-HFCS for a while, I'm so glad to see this is getting more press with the mercury study. This recipe sounds great, thanks Kim! Also, if you want to purchase HFCS-Free Ketchup, Safeway's O Organics kind tastes just like heinz but no HFCS!

Posted by: CapitolHillLB | February 4, 2009 8:31 AM

I'll definitely give this a try. My attempts at homemade BBQ sauce made without bottled ketchup (catsup?) have been Epic Failures. Maybe this recipe gives me a better starting point.

Posted by: c5karl | February 4, 2009 9:13 AM

You also can find organic ketchup (with no HFCS!!) at Trader Joes, and its only $1.99 a bottle! It tastes great too and has a thicker consistency than the name brands.

Posted by: smart_cookie2 | February 4, 2009 9:48 AM

Or you can buy Heinz organic ketchup which tastes like Heinz ketchup.

Posted by: fran426 | February 4, 2009 12:04 PM

Here is a blog that I've recently come across:

All about HFCS-free eating/cooking/living.

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | February 4, 2009 12:13 PM

This sounds delicious. It's dismaying all the products that HFCS is in. Until recently, it was kind of hard to find bread without HFCS but I noticed about a month ago that the brand I had eschewed (blanking on the name right now, sorry) now has a big NO HFCS label. It's ubiquitous in so many products aimed at kids. One thing I products where they reduce salt, they tend to dump HFCS or some sort of sugar into it to ramp up the flavor.

NYT has a story today on how one of the biggest challenges for the folks on Biggest Loser (a show I've not watched) is learning or relearning how to cook. I can believe that. A friend here runs our local food bank, and he says that many many many of their clients have no idea what to do with a can of tomatoes. They want instead, a jar of prego sauce or chili from a can.

We have raised a generation of people who think food comes from a box.

Posted by: khachiya1 | February 4, 2009 1:13 PM

I go out of my way to stock up on Heinz organic ketchup (made in canada, I think) at Whole Foods both because of the lower sugar and better spiciness compared to the candy-like stuff made with HFCS. I think you can get it at regular grocery stores next to the non-organic stuff, and it's just worlds better in taste. Highly recommend Heinz Organic Ketchup.

Posted by: LACS | February 4, 2009 2:00 PM

KOD: This line in today's food section chat had me LOL. It's the "instructions" for Marcella Hazan's roast chicken:

2. Washington chicken under cold running water, and pat thoroughly dry with paper towles.

I guess if you live in Washington, it just becomes second nature to type those extra letters when you mean "wash."

Posted by: khachiya1 | February 4, 2009 3:16 PM

And folks may be interested to know that ketchup doesn't have to be made from's what Sally Fallon had to say on the matter:

"Ketchup provides us with an excellent example of a condiment that was formerly fermented and therefore health promoting, but whose benefits were lost with large scale canning methods and a reliance on sugar rather than lactic acid as a preservative. The word ketchup derives from the Chinese Amoy dialect ke-tsiap or pickles fish-brine or sauce, the universal condiment of the ancient world. The english added foods like mushrooms, walnuts, cucumbers and oysters to this fermented brew; Americans added tomatoes from Mexico to make tomato ketchup.” –Sally Fallon

And if you're interested in making the fermented stuff, here are a few recipes:

You can make the whey needed in the recipe by dripping some plain active-culture yogurt in cheesecloth or a strainer and collecting the drips. Whey also collects on top of unstirred yogurt, and I always pour it off because I like my yogurt thick.

Kim's post about HFCS makes me want to try out fermented and non fermented to see which one I like better...

Posted by: estark01 | February 4, 2009 4:43 PM

Dear me! The amount of mercury you can obtain from eating ketchup with HFCS has got be waaaaay down on the list of hazards a person is exposed to. Pardon my lack of concern.

As to HFCS, sugar is sugar.

Posted by: edbyronadams | February 4, 2009 5:06 PM

What about the BPA in the can lining of the tomato puree used in the recipe? Seems we cannot win!

Posted by: cville2 | February 4, 2009 5:46 PM

You can view the peer reviewed article about mercury in high fructose corn syrup FREE at Just scroll down and click on "Mercury from chlor-alkali plants: measured concentrations in food product sugar" by Dufault et al. To learn more listen to Mark Germain's show aired 2/2/09 at

Posted by: Metallothionein | February 5, 2009 12:28 AM

My local Giant grocery store also carries ketchup sweetened with sugar, not HFCS. I think it's their house "natural" or organic brand, "Nature's Bounty."

It tastes exactly the same, too, for any Heinz purists.

Posted by: ChristinaMason | February 5, 2009 1:28 PM

I have had both Organic Muir Glen ketchup and Organicville ketchup (made with agave); no HFCS in either and they are perfect!

Posted by: godairyfree | February 6, 2009 6:06 PM

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