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JOHANNA MAYER: In the early 1900s, there was a strange dining room in the basement of the Department of Agriculture. Sparse white walls, white china, two round oak tables with white tablecloths, 12 straight-backed chairs. And propped up at the entrance, a hand-painted sign that said "None but the brave can eat the fare".
Every day, 12 young, healthy men would put on their suits and bow ties, march into that dining room, and dig into meals laced with Borax or salicylic acid, or even formaldehyde. They were called The Poison Squad, and the meals that they ate in that basement dining hall would completely transform America's most iconic condiment, ketchup.
From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer. Today we're talking about the word ketchup.
At the turn of the century, food regulation in the United States was just not a thing. Manufacturers were making all kinds of substitutions, shall we call them, and you could never be completely sure why you were eating. Strawberry jam could be mashed up apple peels, grass seeds dyed red. And black pepper? That could be anything, bits of coconut shell, rope, a little bit of floor sweepings.
And even if you were getting the food that was on the label, you didn't know what else was in it. Milk, for example. Yes, there was some actual milk in there, but milk producers would often cut it with lukewarm water. Sometimes they would even toss in a squirt of purified cow brains to make it look like there was a layer of cream on top.
And if that wasn't bad enough, it was not unusual to spike milk with formaldehyde. They figured, hey, works on dead bodies. It'll probably keep milk from spoiling, too. As for ketchup, all sorts of trashy fillers were blended up in there, pumpkin rinds, apple trimmings, you name it.
So this is the sorry state of food regulation when along came a man named Harvey Wiley. He was the chief chemist at the Agriculture Department. Wiley was absolutely devoted to food purity. He once told a reporter that he ate bread that was bread, meat that was meat, butter that was uncolored and unsalted. And Wiley was appalled at all of these stunts that these food makers were pulling, especially the preservatives. He wanted to show people just how bad they could be.
So in 1901, he rounded up a group of volunteers, young, healthy men, mostly low paid clerks in the Agriculture Department, and he fed them three meals a day, good quality food, actually, roast beef, oysters. The catch was that half the time, they'd be getting the same meal, just with a little Borax or salicylic acid or whatever preservative they were testing that week.
Wiley's crew quickly became something of a pop culture phenomenon. Newspapers called them The Poison Squad. They wrote all about these quote, healthy specimens of manhood who were sacrificing their own stomachs to protect the public. Someone wrote a song about them that oh so cleverly rhymed poison squad with gruesome wad. Believe me, we tried to find a surviving copy, but alas.
These experiments were really just about food additives, getting the bad ones out. But they ended up having an unintended side effect. They forever changed ketchup. Americans eat $800 million worth of ketchup every year, hot dogs, burgers, french fries, eggs. In the US, we put that stuff on everything.
Except ketchup, and the name itself, didn't come from the US at all. It came from East Asia. And the original ketchup didn't include the one ingredient that we think of as the most integral, defining, essential thing that makes ketchup ketchup. It had no tomatoes. The original ketchup was fish sauce.
It's a little murky precisely when and where ketchup as fish sauce came to be. And there's no single original ketchup mother sauce recipe. But we do know that for centuries, people have been making these fish sauces all over East and Southeast Asia, the kinds you'd probably associate with Thai and Vietnamese food. And one of the places that made these sauces was the Fujian province of China, where they speak a dialect called Hokkien. And in Hokkien, fish was [NON-ENGLISH]. Sauce was [NON-ENGLISH].
I needed a little bit of help with the pronunciation.
ALAN LI: I don't really know the offhand pronunciation because it's just not in use anymore.
JOHANNA MAYER: This is Alan Li, a linguist and a native Hokkien speaker. Even though the word for this fish sauce isn't around anymore, Alan gave it his best shot.
ALAN LI: I guess it's something like ketchup.
JOHANNA MAYER: Sound familiar? Fish sauce. Ketchup. Ketchup. Or catsup. Hokkien doesn't use the Roman alphabet, so English speakers just kind of guessed at how to spell it. Catsup and ketchup are two different versions of that.
So theory goes the word started in Hokkien, and from there, the sauce and the word traveled.
ALAN LI: In Malay, it's [NON-ENGLISH], although in modern Malay, it generally refers to soy sauce. If you go to a supermarket in Malaysia or somewhere around here, you would see words like [NON-ENGLISH], which means salty, [NON-ENGLISH], ketchup, which is soy sauce. But you also have other variants like [NON-ENGLISH], which is the sweetened soy sauce, and [NON-ENGLISH], which is like fish sauce, literally, and that may have been its origin.
JOHANNA MAYER: So in Malay, ketchup can be kind of a soy sauce, sometimes fishy, sometimes kind of sweet, vaguely close to its roots. But here, how did fish sauce turn into a sugary tomato pulp?
Well, from China, ketchup traveled the globe, and like a lot of borrowed foods, it changed beyond recognition. At some point British sailors bought it from Chinese merchants in Indonesia, brought it back to the Western world. Probably added a nice little kick to all that bland food they were eating on ships.
But it was also an opportunity to sell and market the stuff back home as a fancy delicacy from overseas. And you know what happens when you have a fancy schmancy imported product-- knockoffs. The original fish sauce had this salty, tangy flavor and what we would call today umami. And when ketchup landed in Britain, they swapped and a bunch of Western ingredients to give it a similar punch, just cheaper and more local.
And let me tell you, it was nothing like the stuff that we did dip our fries into today. If you were to spoon a dollop of catch up onto your plate in mid-18th century Britain, you'd be looking at a dark, thin, runny sauce. Some versions of ketchup contain beer. Anchovies were a staple for a while. What made ketchup ketchup was the umami kick that all of those ingredients were trying to deliver, like the original fish sauce.
And you know what else has umami? Tomatoes. So eventually, they threw those in, too. In 1812 we see our very first recorded tomato ketchup recipe. A horticulturist named James Mease instructed the ketchup cook to slice the tomatoes thinly, sprinkle on some salt, beat them well, and after a half hour simmer, top it all off with the dash of brandy and cloves. He called this his recipe for Love Apple Catsup. Yeah, they used to call tomatoes love apples. I kind of wish that name had stuck.
By the time Harvey Wiley and the Poison Squad hit the scene, ketchup had very much arrived stateside. An article in 1896 called tomato ketchup "the national sauce of America". And the reporter is deeply enthralled with it, like weirdly. He wrote, "The skill of the French cook is surpassed in this instance. If he wants real tomato ketchup, he must buy it in America."
And the ketchup business was good, but thanks to Harvey Wiley, manufacturers, like a lot of food manufacturers, were in a bit of a pickle. They needed to get their ketchup to customers without it spoiling. But here was this scientist making a big fuss about preservatives possibly poisoning people. And they were especially unhappy when you zeroed in on sodium benzoate.
It seemed to them that this preservative was harmless enough. Sodium benzoate is the salt of sodium and benzoic acid. Now benzoic acid might sound scary, but it naturally occurs in cranberries and in some milk products, and the compound sodium benzoate seems like an ideal preservative. It was odorless, mostly tasteless, and it was cheap.
But if you think Harvey Wiley is going to let this one slide, think again. If this preservative was going to fly, it had to pass The Poison Squad test, and it didn't. Every single member, save for one, had bad side effects-- inflamed throats, stomach pain, weight loss. Only three out of the 12 were able to stick it out through the sodium benzoate experiments. The others got too sick, had to quit.
But I don't want to throw sodium benzoate under the bus here because the dose makes the poison, right? The quantities of sodium benzoate that The Poison Squad were eating were way bigger than what you would find in a regular old squirted ketchup. And later tests by other researchers just didn't back up the Poison Squad's findings. To this day, the FDA considers sodium benzoate quite safe in small quantities.
But even though sodium benzoate eventually got the green light, back at the turn of the century, one ketchup maker took note of Wiley's Poison Squad experiments, and he decided, if that's what it's doing to people, no way, not for my ketchup. You may have heard of him. His name was Henry J. Heinz.
Heinz was a businessman through and through. At the tender age of eight, little Henry went door to door with a basket, peddling surplus from his family's garden. By age 10, he'd upgraded to a wheelbarrow. He grew up to look like the absolute classic vision of a 19th century wealthy white dude, wispy white hair, big old mustache, three-piece suit.
And for a wealthy 19th century businessman, Henry Heinz was ahead of the curve. His employees got free life and death insurance. They had access to on site cafeterias and medical stations. There were even roof gardens at his factory. And Heinz staked his reputation on purity, cleanliness, and transparency.
By cleanliness, I mean he had laundry services for his workers, even an in-house manicurist to keep their nails pristine. But the Heinz Company, like pretty much everybody else, had been using preservatives, sodium benzoate included. And when Henry Heinz heard about these Poison Squad experiments, he decided that these additives, they just didn't really vibe with his pure ketchup ethos.
So here's Henry's challenge. How do you make a ketchup that stays fresh and red and is equally scrumptious, all without preservatives? Well, there's a concept in food preservation called hurdle technology. If you want to keep food from spoiling, you don't necessarily need one potent preservative in there. Instead, you throw up a bunch of little hurdles, each of which make it tough for microbes to live there. Like you make food more acidic, boil it, reduce water activity by adding lots of salt or sugar. Each of these hurdles on their own won't be enough, but all of them together, that's too much for a little microbe.
Hurdle technology is a relatively new term, but even without knowing it, people have been using this combination punch approach for centuries. And that's basically what Heinz Ketchup was doing. After a whole lot of testing, thousands of experimental batches, Heinz Company scientists came up with a brand new recipe with a lot more vinegar to boost the acidity and plenty of salt and sugar.
And there was one more thing.
SPEAKER 1: Your ketchup's coming out a lot smoother than ours does.
JOHANNA MAYER: You might remember Heinz "Anticipation" ads. The ketchup comes out so slow because it's so thick. But it's worth the wait.
[MUSIC - "ANTICIPATION"]
Heinz's secret to making thick, slow-moving ketchup was to use fresh, ripe tomatoes. Most manufacturers used unripened ones. Definitely more expensive, but besides sounding more appetizing, fresh tomatoes had more pectins, which are long chains of carbohydrates that help gel food. So whereas ketchups could be kind of runny, Heinz was thick with pectins. Mmm.
Once Heinz reformulated, they launched a major advertising campaign touting their ketchup as pure and wholesome. I think of ketchup as just about the most non-fresh, indestructible condiment that could survive the apocalypse just sitting in my refrigerator. But whatever Heinz was doing, people seemed to dig it. In just a couple of years, they went from selling five million bottles a year to 12 million. And although a lot of ketchup brands, honestly, taste pretty much the same these days, Heinz still dominates.
So here is this thing that so many of us eat every single day that farts out of squeeze bottles and doubles as fake blood and is sometimes confused for a vegetable, a condiment as American as diners and fast food that started off in East Asia and used to be fish sauce. Ketchup.
So remember that song that I mentioned earlier that rhymed poison squad with gruesome wad? It's called Song of the Poison Squad, and it was written by someone named SW Gillian. We just couldn't let the world exist without a copy, so here you go.
SPEAKER 2: (SINGING) Oh, we're the merriest herd of hulks that the world has ever seen, we don't shy off from your rough on rats or even from Paris green. We're on the hunt for a toxic dope that's certain to kill, sans fail, but 'tis a tricky, elusive thing and knows we're on its trail. For all the things that could kill we've downed many a gruesome wad, and we're still gaining a pound a day, for we are The Poison Squad.
JOHANNA MAYER: Science Diction is hosted and produced by me, Johanna Mayer. Our editor and producer is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, fact checking by Michelle Harris with help from Danya AbelHameid, sound design and mastering by Chris Wood. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer, and they wrote that excellent version of the "Song of the Poison Squad" you just heard.
We had research help from Cosmo Bjorkenheim and Attabey Rodriguez Benitez. We read two super interesting books for this piece, The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum and The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky. Nadja Oertelt is the coolest, wisest, most gracious chief content officer a podcast could ask for.
SPEAKER 3: That's pouring it on a little thick.
SPEAKER 1: Yeah.