Composite image of Nairo Quintana winning a stage, with photoshopped bottles of sauce in each hand.

Big Ketchup is coming for us all

Bold marketing moment of the week: Heinz trying to position ketchup as a sports food.

Composite image: Nairo Quintana wins a stage at the 2019 Tour de France with a saucy stain on his chest. He was not holding two bottles of ketchup at the time, but it really makes you think, doesn’t it.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 15.11.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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For years, athletes have found a pocket companion in dedicated energy gels. They’re light, compact, and formulated with all of the things that a runner or rider needs to quickly refuel – sometimes they even taste good. But every so often something upends everything we thought we knew about on-bike nutrition. The latest example: Heinz, reimagining its ketchup as a sports fuel. 

On the slim off-chance that you live in a cave: Heinz is a food processing megacompany that, in alliance with Kraft, is the fifth biggest food company in the world. ‘Ketchup’ is American for ‘tomato sauce’, perhaps a bit sweeter. Neither of them are what I would’ve thought of as good riding food. But as a recent media frenzy from Heinz has revealed, the condiments behemoth is making a play for the athletic palate. 

The first prong in this strategy is an advertisement leading with the eyebrow-lifting claim that “runners everywhere are using Heinz ketchup packets on their runs”. Across a tightly cut 40 seconds, there are shots of runners with little pouches of ketchup tucked in headbands, sweatbands and socks, sometimes consuming them with a look of mid-level self-loathing:

Screenshot of Heinz ad, with a runner taking a slurp of sauce.
Deep breath in …

Then there’s the social media blitz, with Heinz pushing branded routes on Strava and MapMyRun in the keystone shape of the brand’s label. According to Little Black Book, an online marketing publication, these routes will direct users to “free Heinz at select Burger King restaurants in the US, and Rosie’s Burger in Toronto.”

The response to the campaign has been … mixed. To cherrypick selected Instagram comments: 

Importantly, Heinz has also attracted the attention of the capital-J Journalists at the New York Times, who ask “are runners in fact suddenly consuming ketchup? So much of it that they need to stop at fast food joints to reload? And if so, is that really a good idea?” Great questions one and all, especially when you start running the numbers on the energy yield from a sachet of ketchup versus a gel. 

According to a sports dietitian for the NYU track team quoted in the article, there is reason enough to be “totally skeptical”, with “no known studies on the effects of ketchup on long-distance runners.” Sachets of ketchup – Heinz or otherwise – are also crucially lacking in carbohydrates; the “gold standard” for runners is 30-60 grams of carbs per hour, while pro cyclists are now consuming up to 120 grams per hour. A ketchup sachet, meanwhile, has a measly two grams of carbs, meaning that if Heinz takes its sporting push to the logical conclusion and starts advertising to cyclists, top riders would be pounding a sauce sachet every minute of every hour. Per another expert cited by the New York Times, “I absolutely can’t see this catching on.”

A rider drinking a Peach flavoured gel.
Peach today, perinaise tomorrow?

Whether it will catch on or not – and our money’s very much on ‘not’ – we live in a world in which Heinz is trying very hard to present its wares as a viable alternative to sporting fuel, opening a portal into a cursed dimension where any condiment could be the next miracle gel. A pocketful of dijon mustard? Why not. A lusty swig of Kewpie on the go? Sure. A crimson swirl of Sriracha snaking its way around in a bidon of tart cherry juice? What are we waiting for? No gain is too marginal, no hoisin too high in sodium. 

We stand on the precipice of a future where the evil geniuses of Heinz-Kraft have pushed Clif and GU into insolvency. They will not rest until we have chimichurri lurking in every pocket. Big Condiment is coming for us all.

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