Ketchups, Ranked From Worst to Best

Ketchups, Ranked From Worst to Best

I had to eat ketchup off a spoon for this, so please listen to me.

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Photo: Shaan Merchant

There’s something uniquely American about ketchup. I’m sure someone in the comments will correct me and note that it was actually first made in ancient Mesopotamia or something, and I know there are excellent global varieties, too (look up Maria Orsa, the war hero and food chemist who popularized Filipino banana ketchup). But America’s version of the sticky-sweet tomato condiment is part of the nation’s cultural identity, squired on fries or streamed across a hot dog, a staple of the picky child’s diet.

I’ll admit to disappointing both Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama: I like ketchup on my scrambled eggs. Beyond its more typical uses, I’ve even heard tell of ketchup on pizza or atop a scoop of cottage cheese. While I’ll pass on those (and prefer mustard on my wieners), I took on the challenge of tasting every mass-market ketchup I could find.

To assess 11 different ketchup brands from four grocery stores, I tasted them each two ways: once using the winning fry from our frozen fench fry ranking as a dipping vehicle, and then again—horrifyingly—plain on a spoon, so as to capture all the nuances. Needless to say, I didn’t feel wonderful after all this.

Image for article titled Ketchups, Ranked From Worst to Best
Photo: Shaan Merchant

Judging ketchups is an especially difficult exercise because one brand has so firmly established itself as the Platonic ideal of ketchup, both in my mind and the greater American consciousness: Heinz. I made sure to taste this ketchup last, judging the others on the idea of the “ketchup standard” Heinz arguably created while not trying to directly measure each product against Heinz specifically. The factors I judged were:

  • Taste: Is this edible? You’d be surprised how many weren’t.
  • Viscosity: Too runny? Weirdly grainy? Smooth? Cooperative in a dipping scenario?
  • Craveability: How much do I want to keep on dipping?

Here’s what I found, along with a team of taste testers.

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11. Acid League California Ketchup

11. Acid League California Ketchup

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Acid League is known for its aesthetically pleasing, millennial-marketed vinegars. The brand, deemed “Hot Girl Vinegar” by Bon Appetit, should stay far, far away from ketchup—arguably the man-child of the condiment world—for the sake of us all. Because when this hot girl and man-child get together, the relationship is toxic. Literally, the result tastes toxic. The ketchup is dark and gritty. It tastes distinctly of pool water and shampoo: chlorine-filled and soapy. In the words of one of my fellow tasters, “The only thing worse would be literal shit dyed with food coloring.”

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10: Fody Ketchup

10: Fody Ketchup

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Fody is a gut-friendly food company that specializes in easy-to-digest products. It’s a commendable goal, but in the case of this ketchup, the brand is doing customers a disservice. To the poor kid with IBS who thinks this is what ketchup tastes like: I feel for you, and it’s not. There is a distinctly medicinal taste at play here, created by an underlying bitterness layered with a cloying sweetness intended to cover it up. Unless it’s curing me of something, it’s not worth stocking in the fridge. It’s pruney—not something you want out of your ketchup—and brought back horrible memories of children’s cough syrup.

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9. Annie’s Organic Ketchup

9. Annie’s Organic Ketchup

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While I’ll be a lifelong devotee of Annie’s mac and cheese, the brand’s ketchup was disappointing. It’s intensely sweet without much complexity (you might be surprised by how much “complexity” a good ketchup has). The basic sweetness is cut by a sour, vinegary aftertaste that hits the back of your throat. The syrupy flavor and runny consistency made it seem like the sort of sauce that a bad Panda Express rip-off would slather on its sweet and sour chicken.

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8. Primal Kitchen Organic Ketchup

8. Primal Kitchen Organic Ketchup

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This ketchup tastes homemade, and that’s not a good thing. As soon as I tasted it, the first thing that came to mind was blueberries. While the product is unsweetened, it has a natural sweetness, plus a grainy texture like a smashed blueberry or decomposing (though luckily not rotting) tomatoes. When people say they don’t like organic foods, this is the flavor profile they’re thinking of. There is no zing from vinegar nor kick from spice, just a fruit-forward tomato paste.

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7. Trader Joe’s Organic Ketchup

7. Trader Joe’s Organic Ketchup

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This was a ketchup bottle facing an identity crisis. It wasn’t sure if it wanted to be a healthy, grainy variety or the preternaturally smooth Heinz style. Ultimately, it’s just unremarkable, sweet and plain. The texture is slightly gritty, resulting in a thick mess when squirted from a squeeze bottle.

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6. 365 Organic Ketchup

6. 365 Organic Ketchup

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This variation from the Whole Foods house brand wanted to be fun and funky but ended up being freaky and fruity, a misstep I can kind of relate to. If I had to choose a ketchup to spread on a buttered piece of toast (god forbid), it would probably be this one. It is dark and cinnamony with clear notes of peach and plum and strawberry. It is interesting, but not what I want in ketchup. Pushing this further down the ranking was a runny consistency that left it sliding around the plate and slipping off my spoon.

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5. Hunt’s Tomato Ketchup

5. Hunt’s Tomato Ketchup

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If this ketchup were a man, it would probably be an accountant named Matt. I’m sure there are some out there who love him (his mom?), but he’s honestly just too boring for me to want to make the effort to find that hidden complexity or interest that he might have in him. The Hunt’s ketchup is just blah, the definition of average. It’s as if someone took a bottle of Heinz and turned down the volume on any of the zing and spice it offers. And now, I must apologize to accountants named Matt, because I’m sure some of you are really cool.

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4. Good Food for Good Organic Ketchup

4. Good Food for Good Organic Ketchup

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As we close in on the top four, this was a complex and robustly flavored ketchup selection. In taste alone, it actually ranked higher than the number 3, but texture and craveability brought it down a bit. There is a deep umami flavor to this dark ketchup, a product from a brand known for its natural, vegan sauces. The ketchup tasted overwhelmingly of mushrooms and had notes of reduced red wine. The smell of garlic permeates the air as soon as you open the jar, and both the garlicky scent and the texture (more similar to a tomato paste than a traditional ketchup) leaned more toward a sweetened marinara than a ketchup. It is certainly the most intense ketchup of them all, though it isn’t necessarily what I would reach for to pair with my fries.

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3. Organicville Ketchup

3. Organicville Ketchup

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Organicville is another brand making organic products in the sauce and condiment space and was the most successful in those efforts of all the “natural” brands we tasted. This ketchup sticks to that smooth, gooey, Heinz-like consistency, and even its packaging seems to promise a generic ketchup, which certainly helps. The first thought that came to mind when I tried this ketchup was cinnamon apples. That might sound weird when thinking of ketchup, but there is a nicely balanced warm spice and fruity note to this condiment that made it craveable; I wanted to keep digging in. Sweetened with agave, it’s not the most traditional, flavor-wise, but if you like a sweet ketchup, this is a decent option.

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2. Heinz Tomato Ketchup

2. Heinz Tomato Ketchup

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Surprised to see Heinz booted from the top spot? I was too. Heinz and the top-ranked ketchup were actually tied (and both were the best options by a wide margin), but because I didn’t expect any other brand to even come close to Heinz’s supremacy, the latter must come in at number two.

You probably know what this product tastes like, as it has defined what ketchup should be. It is to ketchup what Kleenex is to facial tissue and what the Q-tip is to cotton-tipped applicators. When you taste Heinz against 10 other brands, you learn to appreciate its perfection anew.

Now, its “perfection” may just be a result of its ubiquitousness, but that sort of omnipresence nonetheless proves it is a solid product. There is a zing of vinegar and a perfect sweetness-to-spice ratio. The thick, smooth consistency sticks to a fry perfectly without dripping off. Heinz will always have a spot in my kitchen.

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1. Sir Kensington’s Classic Ketchup

1. Sir Kensington’s Classic Ketchup

When Whole Foods’ food court offers free packets of Sir Kensington’s, you don’t need to spring for the whole bottle to make up your mind about it.
When Whole Foods’ food court offers free packets of Sir Kensington’s, you don’t need to spring for the whole bottle to make up your mind about it.
Photo: Shaan Merchant

When I tallied up the final scores in my ketchup spreadsheet (something I never imagined I’d have in life) Sir Kengsington’s did the seemingly impossible and tied with Heinz. Rather than trying and failing to be Heinz tomato ketchup, this brand fully embraces its originality with flavor that hits you with a bang. This ketchup is confident in what it is. It has a fruitiness and spiciness that doesn’t leave you searching for tasting notes.

The detectable addition of allspice makes it lean almost tropical; it dips a pinky toe into the world of jerk seasoning. The texture and consistency are also really appealing. It has body, a thickness with a slight bit of tomato paste grit. Dipping fries into Sir Kensington’s was simply an enjoyable experience. While Heinz may still be the stalwart in my fridge, I would certainly seek this out for a fun and flavorful change of pace.

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