Is Ketchup Vegan? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – Alexas Fotos

To truly answer the question of ‘Is Ketchup Vegan?’, we need to take a peek behind the curtain to explain the controversial connections between ketchup and animal products. The truth is much more complicated than you’d think. Let’s dive in, shall we?

When it comes to being the undisputed king of the condiments in the USA, ketchup reigns supreme. In an article exploring the origins of the beloved sauce, National Geographic made the startling claim that nearly 97% of households in America have a bottle of ketchup lying around.

If that staggering figure wasn’t mesmerizing enough, it’s also reported that Americans purchase up to ten billion ounces of ketchup every year, and before you ask, that amounts to roughly three bottles per citizen per year.

Although the classic recipe for this beloved condiment is relatively simple, several vegans have expressed concern that the ketchup bottles found on the supermarket aisle contain sugar processed with bone char.

Is Ketchup vegan? The Complicated Truth

Before we can get to the heart of the matter and answer the question if ketchup is vegan, let’s take a brief journey through the origins of ketchup and shed some light on how its ingredients have evolved over the years. The word itself is derived from the Hokkien Chinese word ‘ke-tsiap’, which was used to describe a sauce that was seasoned using fermented fish.

Some historians believe that traders brought this fish sauce from Vietnam to Southeast China. It is likely here that British travelers first sampled this dark sauce sometime in the late 17th to early 18th century and tried to replicate it at home.

Originally, these recipes used to contain egg whites, oysters, mussels, and other ingredients. In the modern age, and thankfully for vegetarians, pescatarians, and vegans, the fermented fish was dropped somewhere down the line.

Today, the classic ketchup recipe is relatively quick and simple to make. All you need is:

  • Tomatoes
  • Vinegar
  • Sugar
  • Seasoning and spices according to taste

With such a simple formula for such an influential dressing, you may be wondering how could ketchup even be controversial for vegans. They got rid of the animal products, right?

Controversy with Vegans

Ketchup goes with all kind of dishes such as fries or vegan burgers, but it’s not always all plant-based. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - lynying Ju)

The fact of the matter is that ketchup is truly vegan-only some of the time. Whilst it isn’t always marketed as such, most popular ketchup brands are usually vegan. Nevertheless, there are some exceptions, and many vegans worry that the ketchup bottles they see on the shelves may contain animal products.

Although the herbs and spices used by individual brands will vary according to taste, they are usually plant-based seasonings. The controversy whether ketchup is vegan or not, therefore, lies with the use of processed sugar.

In the United States, in particular, it’s not unheard of that many industrial sugar refineries process their sugar using animal ingredients such as bone char. Therefore, if you’re a strict vegan, most ketchup brands with processed sugars just won’t fly.

If you are a strict vegan that’s worried about having to eat dry fries and plain veggie burgers for the rest of your life, don’t despair! These days it’s become incredibly easy to purchase ketchup that is vegan by only using organic, unprocessed sugar.

What about Bone Char in Ketchup?

You may be wondering what the big deal with vegan ketchup and processed sugars is, and we’ll explain. In food production, there are basically two types of sugar that are used:

  • Beet sugar
  • Cane sugar

Beet sugar is mixed with additives to help it crystallize, although none of these come from animals. Whereas cane sugar is sometimes mixed or bleached with bone whilst being heated up to crystalize.

For those who don’t know, bone char is a powder that’s made by carbonizing animal bones, mostly cattle. Naturally, you may be wondering why on earth anyone would mix animal bones with ketchup. The reason why bone char is involved in the process is that it’s considered to be a natural carbon and decolorizing agent which helps cane sugar stay white.

It legally isn’t allowed in the food production process in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, or EU countries. However, it has been consistently used by companies in North America, so our American readers should be wary.

Although some companies may use granular carbon, many will source their sugar from different suppliers, which further increases the odds of bone char being used somewhere along the line.

Natural Flavors Controversy

In the United States, the FDA has a strict outline of food regulations that demand manufacturers reveal everything that their food contains. These were set up to protect consumers against health risks and anything that is an allergen, such as nuts, or shellfish, could be easily found on a product’s label.

Despite this, it’s still going to be tricky to determine if cane sugar has been used in the ketchup bottle in your cupboard. You might, however, find the words ‘natural flavors’ on the bottle, which brings us to the crux of the controversy.

Although natural flavors in ketchup may merely refer to spices or seasonings, there is also an intentional ambiguity at play here. As we said, companies are required by law to broadcast if their food contains allergens.

However, meat isn’t viewed as an allergen and many manufacturers in the past have brushed animal products under the rug by labeling them as ‘natural flavors’. As a general rule of thumb, the following sugars are never refined with bone char:

  • Organic granulated white sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Confectioners’ sugar

Therefore, any kind of ketchup made with these sugars is entirely vegan. So, next time you’re shopping for a bottle of ketchup, be sure to check the ingredients listed on the back for these organic sugars.

To help you stay well informed and to save you some time on your newfound homework, here are some insights on whether or not the biggest brands are vegan-friends.

Vegan Ketchup Brands Available in the USA 

If you’re a reader from the United States you must be slightly more vigilant when browsing the ketchup aisle than your European cousins. To aid you in your quest for the most ethical yet zesty ketchup bottle on the aisle, here’s a brief list of the most popular ketchup brands and varieties that are vegan:

  • Heinz ‘No Sugar Added’ Ketchup
  • Hunt’s Classic Ketchup
  • Heinz Organic Tomato Ketchup
  • Annie’s Naturals Organic Ketchup
  • Tessemae’s Organic Ketchup
  • Veg’d Organics Vegan All-Natural Ketchup

The devil, as they say, is in the details, and it’s worth bearing in mind that many mainstream alternatives to ketchup may not be 100% suitable if you’re a strict vegan.

For instance, the ever-popular Heinz Original Ketchup and Hunt’s 100% Natural Tomato bottles raise a whole host of vegan concerns regarding how they process their sugar content.

These bottles are non-organic and sweetened with problematic cane sugar, which may or may not have been filtered through bone char. On the other hand, ketchup that uses high-fructose corn syrup is vegan, such as Hunt’s Classic Variety.

A general rule of thumb is that, if you’re an individual that prefers healthier alternatives over the mass-processed and packaged products offered on the shelf, organic is the ticket.

At the end of the day, the answer to the question ‘Is Ketchup Vegan?’ primarily depends on exactly where you draw the line as a vegan.

Homemade Vegan Ketchup Recipe

Quick and easy vegan ketchup recipe. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash – Dennis Klein)

On the flip side, although organic ketchup is guaranteed to be healthier, it can also be more expensive. Understandably it seems that the average person isn’t super keen to spend a lot of money on uber ethical, vegan ketchup.

To be on the safe side, we always recommend making the ketchup yourself. Fortunately, your budget doesn’t have to compromise your morals as it’s extremely easy to make vegan ketchup at home.

Not only will you know exactly where all the ingredients come from, but your ketchup will also be free from vegan sweeteners or artificial flavors. 

If that’s not enough to convince you, the following recipe is super simple and quick, taking several minutes to make. All you need to do is mix the ingredients together.

Two Minute Vegan Ketchup Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup tomato paste
  • 4 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • Sea salt (to taste/optional)

Instructions

In regards to the process, it couldn’t be simpler. All you need to do is mix all the ingredients in a bowl and adjust the seasonings to your personal preference. Feel free to experiment.

If you don’t wish to use maple syrup, you can easily substitute it with agave syrup or blended dates. Placed in an airtight container, this vegan ketchup should last two weeks in a fridge, or it can be frozen for up to six months. Bon Appetit!

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