Heinz’s decision to change its ketchup recipe after 40 years is a sign of our health-obsessed, killjoy times.

I have a friend – hang on, I have two friends – for whom everything tastes of tomato ketchup. Not because they suffer from a weird medical condition, but because they drown every meal they eat in a tsunami of red sauce. For them, thanks to the red stuff, food can always be relied on to taste great – even if it always tastes exactly the same.

When we talk about tomato ketchup, we really mean Heinz Tomato Ketchup. It is far and away the biggest-selling brand, with 60 per cent of the US market. Created in 1876, ketchup is Heinz’s No.1 selling item. According to the Heinz website: ‘Over 650million bottles of Heinz Tomato Ketchup are sold around the world in more than 140 countries, with annual sales of more than $1.5billion.’

Yet now, Heinz has announced a change to its long-standing recipe, though this particular change will only affect the US version of the ketchup (Heinz tweaks the recipe for different markets). It plans to reduce the sodium content – that is, the amount of salt – in its US ketchup by 15 per cent. A spokesperson for Heinz in the US, Jessica Jackson, told the New York Post that the decision ‘came from the changing needs of our consumers and our commitment to health and wellness’ – which is garbled public-relations speak for ‘the government was leaning on us to do this and we finally gave in’.

As the New York Post article notes, the change to tomato ketchup’s ingredients was not demanded by consumers. The recipe has remain unchanged for 40 years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Heinz is hopeful that ketchup-krazy consumers might not notice the difference. Jackson told the Post: ‘We conducted extensive testing with a broad cross-section of consumers across the country to ensure there wasn’t a distinguishable difference between the current and new recipes.’

However, this is bad news for consumers. As one New York mum told me: ‘I’m apprehensive. My son only eats two vegetables. And Heinz ketchup is one of them. Actually, the other one was smothered in Heinz ketchup so I’m not sure it really counts. On those rare occasions when we have been in a restaurant that does not serve Heinz, he demands to know “what’s wrong with the ketchup?” I’m not exaggerating when I say this could mean the end of vegetables for him.’

Her son is not alone in his love of ketchup. Ketchup gives young fussy eaters the ability to control what their food tastes like at an age when they are practically allergic to trying new foodstuffs.

She added: ‘I’m also puzzled about why they’re doing this now. Why not just bring out lower-sodium ketchup for people who want it? It’s true my son goes through Heinz by the barrel, but who else over the age of five consumes that much? And how many kids have problems with their blood pressure?’

Ketchup is the result of decades of tinkering to produce the perfect sauce. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in 2004, ketchup brings together ‘the five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami’. Umami is the ‘proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother’s milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato’.

A little by accident, a little by design, Henry J Heinz brought together all these tastes to create his ketchup. ‘When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, another of the fundamental tastes’, wrote Gladwell. Moreover, as a byproduct of trying to find a way to preserve the sauce better, Heinz ‘also doubled the concentration of sugar – so now ketchup was also sweet – and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter’.

Heinz’s decision was actually taken under pressure. It is the latest example of the authorities deciding that they know best, forcing food manufacturers to change their recipes – to ‘reformulate’ as they say in the trade – in order to fit in with health concerns. As Mark Sparrow reported on spiked last year, McVitie’s changed the recipe for Digestive biscuits to reduce the amount of saturated fat. ‘What was once the nation’s favourite biscuit has morphed into a rather pathetic, pale imitation of itself. The Digestive that sustained, nourished and comforted a generation through two world wars and played its part in keeping the home fires burning is no more. The callous tick of a ballpoint pen of some joyless Whitehall functionary has managed to finish off the biscuit that even Hitler failed to crush.’ (See It’s a digestive, Jim, but not as we know it.)

This might not be so bad if the tinkering with ingredients really did have a beneficial effect on health. But actually, ketchup is already a surprisingly healthy product. According to the US Department of Agriculture food database, 100g of ketchup contains 97 calories, barely any fat and about one gram of sodium. But it also contains a fair proportion of an adult’s requirements of vitamin C (25 per cent) and vitamin A (about 18 per cent), while providing plenty of lycopene, a natural pigment that has been suggested as a possible protection against cancer (though such claims need to be treated with substantial scepticism).

There is a much-mythologised tale that the US government under President Reagan considered redefining tomato ketchup as a fruit/vegetable. But in terms of its nutritional content, tomato ketchup – which, after all, contains lots of concentrated tomato – stacks up pretty well. To dismiss ketchup as unhealthy is wide of the mark. Pound-for-pound, ketchup contains three times as much vitamin C as apples. So if an ‘apple a day’ is sound advice, why not a squirt of ketchup?

As for reducing sodium content, let’s remember this is a condiment. It’s designed to be used to add a little flavour to food and therefore should be packed with salt, pepper, herbs and spices. And all that salt? It’s almost certainly harmless. Unless you have pre-existing high blood pressure, there is little evidence that cutting salt intake improves health (see Turning salt into Public Enemy No.1).

Still, there’s something entirely appropriate about the way that our political leaders are trying to save us from ourselves. Because the food we’re being forced to eat is, like them, increasingly bland.

Squeezing the joy out of ketchup, spiked