Example of a ketchup advertisement in the 1800’s (Source: World wide facts)
In today’s world using ketchup to medicate yourself sounds ridiculous. This wasn’t the case in the 1830s when tomato ketchup took America’s health care industry by storm. Previously, ketchup had been made from mushrooms or fish, and tomatoes were considered poisonous. That was until 1834 when Dr. John Cooke Bennett added tomatoes to ketchup and seemingly transformed the condiment into the hottest drug of the 1800s (think along the lines of today’s Pfizer vaccine — yes, ketchup was that popular as medication).

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John C. Bennett Engraving from a drawing by Alvan Clark - 1842 (Source — The John Smith Papers).The beginning of the ketchup craze

Bennett claimed that he had done research on the tomato and found that it was capable of curing several ailments including diarrhea, cholera, jaundice, indigestion, and rheumatism. Bennett encouraged people to cook down tomatoes into a sauce to benefit from the fruit’s healing properties. His research was widely publicized across all major American newspapers.

Alexander Miles, an entrepreneur during the 1830s came across Bennett’s research on tomatoes. At the time, Miles was selling a patent medicine called the “American Hygiene Pill.” When Bennett and Miles finally connected the pill was changed to “Extract of Tomato.” This maximized the tomato craze that had taken the country by storm. Miles heavily advertised his extract of tomato which was sold in both liquid and pill form. The heavy advertising in newspapers everywhere, accompanied by Bennett’s research boosted the “extract of tomato” popularity across the country.

Stories of people being healed by the tomato extract became a popular feature in most newspapers. Headlines read, “Tomato Pills Will Cure All Your Ills.” An 1843 newspaper extract from the Boston Cultivator read as follows,

“We knew an instance of a very severe case of dyspepsia, of ten years standing, cured by the use of the tomato. The patient had been unable to get any relief; he could eat no fresh meat, nor boiled vegetables. Reading an account of the virtues of the tomato, he raised some, and used them as food in the fall, stewed, and made some in jelly for winter use. He was cured.”

How did the ketchup craze end?

As the ketchup pills and sauces craze grew, more entrepreneurs jumped on the bandwagon and began making their version of the “extract of tomato” pills and sauces. The ketchup market grew exponentially and was fast becoming a lucrative business.

Scientists at the time began expanding on Bennett’s research and looking more critically at the claims made about ketchup. As more scientists researched the healing benefits of ketchup, the medical profession was able to dispel the claims that had been made as nothing more than a hoax. Ketchup was not the miraculous wonder drug the nation had been led to believe by both Bennett and Miles. Soon the hype over the healing properties of ketchup died down.

Although the ketchup as medicine phase died down eventually, it did last almost two decades. Bennett’s research may have over-exaggerated the benefits of tomatoes but based on what we know now, his research wasn’t a complete hoax. Modern research has shown that tomatoes are the major source of the antioxidant lycopene, which has been linked to many health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. They are also a good source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and vitamin K. This tells us that although exaggerated, Bennett’s research wasn’t completely off.

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Ultimately, the ketchup craze was beneficial as it dispelled the belief that tomatoes are poisonous. Bennett managed to get more Americans eating tomatoes which is never a bad thing. Imagine a world without tomatoes, no ketchup, no tomato soup, and no tomato pasta dishes — that would have been a real disaster. In conclusion, we owe Bennett a big thank you for making not only ketchup but all tomato dishes we enjoy today, possible.