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Why Are U.S. Presidents So Obsessed With Ketchup?

Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and ketchup’s brief flirtation with vegetablehood

Close-up of three bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup. Scott Olson/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, America’s favorite condiment was splattered all over the headlines: Cassidy Hutchinson, a former White House employee, revealed in Congressional testimony that she had seen outgoing president Donald Trump throw a plateful of lunch on January 6, 2021, leaving gobs of ketchup dripping down the wall. Trump’s outburst instantly drew the attention of comedians and late-night hosts; Chelsea Handler joked that the scene probably looked like the end of a presidential playdate. But this wasn’t ketchup’s first Presidential scandal. Years before the condiment was making its undignified way towards federal carpeting, it was causing consternation in the halls of power. At issue was a seemingly ridiculous question: Is ketchup a vegetable?

The year was 1981. Diana Ross and Lionel Richie had the year’s top hit, filling the airwaves alongside Stevie Nicks, Electric Orchestra, and The Police. The public swooned at the royal marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. On Capitol Hill, though, a storm was brewing: Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts slashed funding for school lunch programs by more than 30 percent, and the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service was scrambling to meet federal nutritional requirements for the meals they served on a smaller budget. Vegetables were expensive, but the rules mandated that kids had to be served two portions of them at lunchtime. Maybe the department could save money by counting certain condiments as vegetables, including pickle relish and — significantly — tomato concentrate?

The USDA’s proposed changes never mentioned ketchup explicitly, but after they were released to the public, critics did the math and figured out that these new rules could effectively lead to ketchup being counted as a vegetable.

Congressional Democrats and the media alike seized on the story as a perfect example of the Reagan administration’s hypocrisy. What kind of President would ask Congress for an $33.8 billion increase in military spending and enact a 25 percent tax cut for the wealthy, while suggesting that low-income kids could get their nutritional needs met by a dollop of ketchup? In the New York Times, Washington correspondents reported on the “unsavory publicity” the proposed “ketchup rule” had attracted, with Democrats hailing it as “the Emperor’s New Condiments” and embarking on “a Dickensian field day of outrage and mockery.” According to historian Amy Bentley, Democratic Senators staged a lunch for the press that showcased what school lunches would look like under the new administration: “a tiny little hamburger patty, a slice of white bread, five or six French fries and some ketchup.”

Perhaps most famously, Pennsylvanian Republican John Heinz — yes, of those Heinzes — took to the Senate floor in opposition, calling the idea “ludicrous.” “Ketchup is a condiment,” the Times reported him saying. “This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I do know something about ketchup and relish.” The very next day, the Reagan administration withdrew its changes.

Instead, the USDA adopted a different cost-saving measure, called Offer versus Serve. Schools had to always offer the required amount of vegetables, but they were not required to serve them to students; students could simply refuse up to a certain number of the selections. To perhaps nobody’s surprise, students who were offered mushy peas or boiled carrots often said no — and, hey presto!, schools could purchase and prepare vegetables in far smaller quantities.

But that wasn’t the end of debate over concentrated tomatoes in the cafeteria. In the 1990s, the USDA quietly granted frozen-food manufacturers an exemption to USDA rules: instead of requiring a half-cup of tomatoes to meet their serving suggestions, just two tablespoons of concentrated tomato paste would suffice, since that could then be reconstituted into a half-cup of tomato sauce.

In 2011, the USDA, under directives from the Obama administration, attempted to pass a law making school lunches healthier, in part by revoking the tomato exception; it would have required that schools “credit tomato paste and puree based on actual volume as served.” But Congressional lawmakers maintained the two-tablespoon-veggie rule by amending bills in the House and Senate, which led critics to declare that Congress had categorized pizza — the most common vehicle for those two reconstituted tablespoons — as a vegetable. Just as in the Reagan-era ketchup fiasco, Congress never actually mentioned pizza in the bill that maintained the rule. But unlike in the Reagan years, the blowback wasn’t enough to sink the bills, and Obama was forced to sign it into law to maintain the rest of his healthy-lunch program.

Today, tomato concentrate has been joined by another tomato product: salsa, which the USDA declared worthy of vegetable status in school lunches as of 1998. While the move did receive some of the blowback experienced by ketchup and pizza, most nutritionists supported the change, as long as the qualifying condiments contained only vegetables. “We think this is very positive,” Tracy Fox, an official in the American Dietetic Association, told the Washington Post at the time, noting it provided kids another vegetable option while also recognizing the ethnic diversity of many schools.

Ketchup’s brief flirtation with vegetablehood is just the latest twist in its curious story. Check out the latest episode of Gastropod to find out how ketchup got thick. As co-hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber discover, this seemingly uncomplicated all-American condiment actually started out as fermented fish sauce; its convoluted path to becoming a beloved sweet and tangy accompaniment for burgers and fries involves the fall of the Roman empire, an 18th century fashion for fish sauce knock-offs, and an opportunistic rebrand as a healthy, preservative-free choice. Listen in to find out how a salty, pungent amber-colored seasoning that gives Southeast Asian cuisine its characteristic flavor turned into a thick, red sauce capable of sticking to the White House wall — and why we don’t give ketchup the credit it deserves.