Love Ketchup? This Is The Weird, Scientific Reason Your Brain Craves It
I'd argue that ketchup is one polarizing sauce. The haters really dislike it (you can even find Reddit threads dedicated to ketchup aversion). But for those who love it? They really love it—like a keep it close by, drizzle it on everything kind of love. Ketchup on spaghetti; ketchup on rice; ketchup on eggs; even ketchup on pancakes—it's the Swiss Army knife of condiments. It's no wonder over 650 million bottles of Heinz Ketchup are sold each year.
Plenty of food theorists and researchers have wondered what, exactly, makes the secret sauce so enchanting. Happiness expert and New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin is one of those researchers: "Why is ketchup so magical?" she poses on the mindbodygreen podcast. Here, she explains how it "tickles" your brain.
Why your brain loves the taste of ketchup.
"It turns out that ketchup is one of the rare [foods] that hits all five tastes," Rubin explains. "It's sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami." That's exactly what makes ketchup so satisfying: It hits all the five basic flavors. That umami taste is especially significant, as it makes your mouth water and triggers your stomach to increase its production of stomach acid, which helps you digest the proteins in the food you're eating. (That's why umami flavors can lead to both appetite and satiety.)
Some food theorists even call ketchup an "über-food," like cookbook author Elisabeth Rozin, for example: In her essay, "Ketchup and the Collective Unconscious," she deems the sauce "the only true culinary expression of the melting pot...its special and unprecedented ability to provide something for everyone makes it the Esperanto of cuisine." Journalist and New York Times bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell even dove into ketchup's die-hard fandom in a New Yorker piece, called "The Ketchup Conundrum."
Translation? Ketchup is one special sauce, and the reason it makes the brain so satisfied is that it arouses every single one of our tastes. Zooming out a tad, this idea relates to the fact that our senses have a powerful ability to affect our happiness. In fact, that's the very crux of Rubin's next book, she tells us in the podcast episode.
"Yogurt feels creamier in my mouth if I eat from a heavy bowl, my drink tastes sweeter if I see that it's red, potato chips taste fresher when I hear a louder crunch, I enjoy music more when I feel the beat," she writes in a blog post. And ketchup brings so many layers to the table—sweet and salty and umami and so on—that it dresses the dish in flavor, enhances the experience, and even leaves some feeling giddy.
Of course, traditional ketchups are typically loaded with sugar, which adds to their sweetness but isn't so sweet for your blood sugar and overall health. Rather, we'd point you to a high-quality sauce that retains those same brain-stimulating flavors without any iffy ingredients, such as this organic ketchup from Primal Kitchen.
Ketchup lovers, there's a reason you want to drench the sauce over every dish—according to Rubin (and food theorists), it actually makes your brain happy by hitting all five basic tastes. A multifaceted condiment, indeed.
Jamie Schneider is the Beauty & Wellness Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare. In her role at mbg, she reports on everything from the top beauty industry trends, to the gut-skin connection and the microbiome, to the latest expert makeup hacks. She currently lives in New York City.