The Fascinating Medicinal Origins Of Ketchup

When you're looking at a handful of fast food ketchup packets, you probably aren't thinking about all of the great health benefits hidden inside. But believe it or not, tomato ketchup got its start in pill form. If we trace the origins of ketchup, we discover that it's a descendant of an Asian fish sauce called ge-thcup or koe-cheup. The condiment was discovered by European traders traveling overseas, who brought it back home where the recipe was adapted into a beer and anchovies sauce.

In 1812, scientist and horticulturalist James Meade invented the first tomato-based ketchup. At the time, most Americans and Europeans wouldn't eat tomatoes because they resembled the poisonous nightshade berries. People thought it would make them sick. This started to change in the 1830s. In 1834, Dr. John Cook Bennett, a physician living in Ohio, started selling ketchup as a cure for diarrhea, jaundice, and indigestion. Before long, Bennett started selling his concentrated ketchup in pill form. As demand for the miracle condiment skyrocketed, other companies started producing their own tomato ketchup and tomato pills.

A murky medicine

Just as most other tales of snake oil salesmen pan out, things didn't go well for the consumer. Tomatoes were only in season for two months of the year, but demand was high enough to sell them all year long. The science of food preservation was not like it is today, so companies were filling the medical tomato tincture with rotten tomato pulp.The food industry at the time was notoriously under regulated, but the companies had to do something to keep the ketchup from arriving to the customer looking like, well, a rotten tomato. So they began adding harmful chemicals like boric acid, formalin, salicylic acid, and benzoic acid to help preserve it. 

Even worse was when they attempted to strain the rotten pulp out before adding it to the bottle. They discovered that what came out on the other side was no longer red, so they would add coal tar to dye it back to the original scarlet hue. Coal tar is extremely carcinogenic and, today, if you accidentally get any product with coal tar in it in your eyes or mouth, you are advised to rinse them out immediately. Ketchup's time in the medical spotlight lasted until the year 1850 when, after some companies got caught selling laxatives labeled as tomato pills, the demand for medicinal ketchup fell off a cliff. It would be another half a century before Heinz would enter the marketplace with a non-toxic tomato ketchup.