Ketchup Calculus

Recently Heinz announced they have reformulated their tomato ketchup with about 15% less salt. Because they hold six tenths of the ketchup market, and because their recipe has not changed in nearly 40 years, this must have been a hard decision to make. They probably predicted some negative reactions. Why did they proceed?

Heinz altered their flagship product under pressure from politicians, but not yet under force of law. Here is an oversimplified economical argument for reformulating ketchup with less salt.

Everyone who uses ketchup on food or in recipes uses it, to some degree, because it adds a desired saltiness. If you didn’t want salt, you wouldn’t add ketchup; Q.E.D. However, many people desire less salt now than they once did. Let’s set aside the reasons and just take it as a given that a lot of people are trying to consume less sodium.

The amount of salt desired is a variable so I will use it as one axis of a graph. For the other axis I will use the volume of ketchup applied to achieve the desired amount of salt. Then we can draw the amount of salt per volume of various ketchup as sloping lines; a saltier ketchup is represented by a steeper line. Here is the bare graph, to which I will add lines to illustrate my point:

Heinz ketchup formulas

Even without plotting lines on a graph, you certainly already understand that you can reduce the amount of salt in your food by using less ketchup. (That is, unless you don’t eat ketchup, in which case read this.) For the sake of completeness, here is a graph illustrating how to reduce salt consumption by using less ketchup:

How to eat less salt

If you own shares in Heinz (HNZ) you should have cringed three times while reading the previous paragraph. Nobody in the business of selling ketchup wants to sell less ketchup. When the market threatens to demand less salt, purveyors of salty goods try to find a way to protect their sales.

Forget about public service announcements reminding consumers that eating less ketchup [cringe] leads to eating less salt. To protect ketchup sales from falling due to reduced salt demand, manufacturers must reformulate. This graph shows how the volume of ketchup sales can be protected by putting less salt in the ketchup:

Ketchup needed to provide desired salt

Now the graph is getting crowded. Here are the same outcomes reduced to four boxes:

Low-sodium ketchup means more ketchup

Obviously there is more to ketchup than just salt but salt is a crucial ingredient. Heinz must have spent a lot of money developing and testing their new recipe. I found this narrative helped me to understand that it’s okay to change a 40-year-old recipe to follow the changing taste of the market. Even so, I reserve the right to sprinkle some Morton on my Heinz.

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