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Ketchup tries to keep up with changing tastes

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Walk down the condiment aisle at your local grocery store, and you’re likely to see at least half a dozen different varieties of ketchup. Beyond classic tomato ketchup, there are now organic versions, as well as ones with no added sugar, salt or artificial sweeteners.

“There’s certainly been a proliferation of varieties of what’s essentially still basic ketchup,” said Mike Richardson, a food industry analyst at the Freedonia Group.

As American diners have become more adventurous — and grocers have added more hot sauces and curries to store shelves — ketchup sales have stayed pretty flat, Richardson said, at around $1 billion a year.

“The development of some of these new variations of ketchup, whether it’s with different ingredient formulations or more exotic flavor profiles, has been to an effort to retain the customer base for ketchup that might otherwise have gone in search of something more exciting,” he said.

Or something that at least seems more healthy. Hunt’s, made by Conagra, just released a new “Best Ever” ketchup that’s made with sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Meanwhile a lot of the growth at Heinz, still king of ketchup, is coming from its organic, sugar-free and salt-free varieties, according to Molly White, head of marketing for sauces and condiments.

“That better-for-you segment, for us,” she said, “represents more than 15% of our sales, and it’s been growing year-over-year.”

Hot is also hot, so Heinz created spicy varieties with jalapeno peppers, Tabasco sauce and Sriracha. And if you thought Mayochup — the ketchup-mayonnaise combo Heinz introduced last year — was a gimmick, meet Edchup, a limited-edition bottle endorsed by pop star Ed Sheeran.

The stakes for product innovation are high, said Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School. Kraft Heinz just hired a new CEO after posting a $12.6 billion loss last quarter.

“Part of the dilemma they’re in is they’re $31 billion in debt,” she said. “So any bit of erosion, any bit of pressure on their market share or footprint is going to drop right to the bottom line and cause harm.”

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