Ketchup is a popular condiment characterized by a sweet and tangy flavor profile. Typically tomato-based, the condiment used to be historically made with other ingredients such as mushrooms and such. Ketchup is commonly served nowadays along with certain food items such as French fries, burgers, hot dogs, and more. The condiment can come in diverse variants with slightly different characteristics, but it remains a very popular condiment used across the world.
Ketchup would be typically vegan since its ingredients would conventionally contain tomatoes, vinegar, sweeteners, salt, herbs, and spices. However, it is still recommended to check the ingredients list when choosing a product because there are some ingredients used in ketchup that some vegans avoid such as sugar and natural flavors. Some ketchup products would even be totally non-vegan by using honey as its sweetener of choice.
Ketchup can be made from a variety of ingredients, but the condiment is commonly associated with tomatoes nowadays. For this article, only tomato-based ketchup will be discussed.
For many ketchup factories, the production line begins when the tomatoes are received. Large factories producing ketchup can utilize tons of tomatoes on a daily basis. The tomatoes are first washed and assessed to make sure all the tomatoes that get through are of excellent quality (1).
The tomatoes would typically go on conveyor belts that would then bring the tomatoes through various processes. One of the initial processes that the tomatoes undergo is steaming. The hot steam softens the tomatoes that make them more pliable later on. The steaming process also aids in the separation between the tomato pulps and the tomato skins.
When these tomatoes are extensively steamed, they are then put on rollers that help remove the skins off of the fruits. The tomatoes are then carried off by the conveyor belts to macerators that physically cut the tomatoes. With the tomatoes cut to smaller pieces, they are then mashed – effectively creating a tomato paste. While some companies begin their production processes with freshly harvested tomatoes, some companies begin their production processes with tomato paste.
The tomato paste is mixed with water to achieve a smoother consistency. The tomato paste is then brought to storage tanks where the other ingredients are mixed as well. The principal ingredients that make tomato ketchup are tomato paste, salt, vinegar, and a sweetener such as sugar. Companies would also include a secret mix of herbs and spices for flavor. While all the ingredients are being mixed in a storage tank, the temperature inside the tank is being controlled to cycle from cooling down to heating up over and over.
The ketchup produced when all the ingredients are added can already be bottled and shipped. Some companies would still take samples from batches to check the quality of the products. Aside from taste, an important characteristic of ketchup is its consistency.
The primary ingredients and the processes involved in making ketchup imply that most ketchup products would probably be vegan, especially since many ketchup products are mainly composed of various vegan ingredients such as tomatoes, salt, and flavoring.
However, it is still important to check the ingredients list on the labels because there are some ingredients that can be found in ketchup that some vegans might want to avoid.
Firstly, one of the most common sweeteners used in ketchup production is sugar. While sugar should be a vegan ingredient since it is obtained from sugarcanes and sugar beets, there are some instances where sugar is not vegan. This is because some sugar companies would refine their sugar by filtering it using bone char – the charred skeletal remains of animals (2). Thus, sugar produced using bone char cannot be considered vegan since an animal product was used. Fortunately, many ketchup companies use corn syrup instead.
For example, the popular condiment brand Heinz uses corn syrup in their ketchup instead of sugar (3).
If the ketchup brand is not using sugar or corn syrup, then vegans might worry because honey is also a viable sweetener used for ketchup production. As a product that is directly harvested from animals, honey is not considered vegan.
Different vegans can avoid honey for different reasons. Aside from the exploitation of the bees for honey farming, many vegans also tend to abstain from honey due to the environmental impact of the practice of beekeeping. It has been extensively studied that bees are integral members of the environment due to their ecological contribution of pollinating plants. However, bee populations have been on the decline and beekeeping can be a possible factor.
It has been found that beekeeping can actually be detrimental to the native bee populations in an area(4). Beekeeping for honey purposes would typically employ the use of honeybees. However, there are other native bee species that are present in the wild. Unfortunately, the sheer number of bees used in beekeeping can aggressively compete with the native bee species to extinction.
Another product to look out for is natural flavors. It is a common ingredient found in many food products and beverages. While other ingredients serve functional roles in the overall quality of the product such as stabilizers, emulsifiers, and such, natural flavors primarily function by imparting flavor to the product.
Unfortunately, natural flavors are considered to be a gray area ingredient because consumers do not have an idea what substances make it up. Specifically, the FDA defines natural flavors as (5):
“The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”FDA.gov
The definition implies that substances allowed under the umbrella term should be from a natural source such as a spice, fruit, or vegetable part. However, the definition also includes animal products as well such as meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Without any other labels indicating whether a product is vegan or not, many vegans would rather avoid products with natural flavors altogether as a precaution.