Oh you fancy, huh?

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From McDonalds to Hunt's to Heinz, many brands of ketchup have at one time or another been labeled as “Fancy.” You might think this branding is nothing more than a marketing ploy to trick consumers into thinking one brand’s condiment was higher in quality than another’s, there’s actually a concrete process behind which ketchups can be labeled “Fancy.”

Though it may seem reasonable that in order to be called fancy, the ketchup would have to be made with organic/free-range/touched-only-by-angels ingredients, the term actually relates to a grading system having to do mostly with ketchup’s chemical makeup. “Fancy” was used by the USDA to designate the highest quality of ketchup (referred to by the USDA only as “catsup”) that can be produced with regards to chemistry. The grading system is particularly concerned with specific gravity, which is the ratio of the density of a substance in relation to the density of a standard substance, typically water for a liquid or solid.

In terms of ketchup, to achieve the “Fancy” grade, the ketchup had to have a specific gravity of 1.15, or be about 33 percent total solids. The second tier, Extra Standard, must have a specific gravity of 1.13 with 29 percent solids; and third tier, Standard, must have a specific gravity of 1.11, and be 25 percent solids. Additionally, according to the USDA, “Fancy” is “the quality of tomato catsup that possesses a good color; that possesses a good consistency; that is practically free from defects; that possesses a good flavor; that possesses a good finish.” The subsequent gradings have their own conditions for color, flavor, consistency, and finish.

Strangely enough, although the USDA still measures ketchup quality in the same manner, it actually no longer uses the terms Fancy, Extra Standard, or Standard to distinguish grades of ketchup, and uses “U.S. Grade A,” “B,” “C,” and “Substandard” instead. The agency also seems to have deleted all evidence of having ever used the term “Fancy” in terms of ketchup. While I read several online articles from food and lifestyle publications written in the last several years, as well as a scholarly article published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition on processing tomatoes, which describe the grades that include “Fancy,” all “further reading” links, which led me to the USDA website, redirected to the organization’s homepage or to the current alphabetical grading system page.

Turns out “Fancy” and sometimes “Extra Fancy” are still used by the USDA to characterize quality of a number of other foods, among them apples, horseradish root, frozen french fries, frozen corn on the cob, fresh peas for freezing and canning, frozen grapefruit and orange juice, mixed nuts, canned sauerkraut, and more. In each case, fancy means something else, from smoothness of skin to uniformity of size and texture.

So, you may still find ketchup labeled “Fancy,” and it’ll probably taste just fine. However, if it’s not also labeled “U.S. Grade A,” somewhere on the package or producer’s fine print, it’s technically not the highest quality product.