The Souper Bowl Competition For Soup Sales Heats Up
by Jayne Hurley & Bonnie Liebman, January/February 2010
The soup aisle is hot.
For years, not much was new. Some lines made claims like 98% fat free or organic, some came in cups instead of cans, and flavors started to move beyond chicken noodle and tomato. But overall, soup shelves still offered comfort food circa 1950.
Today, companies are tripping over each other to cut sodium, trim calories, boost vegetables, add whole grains, and go "100% natural." Did they realize that half a can of many of their soups supplied two-thirds of a day's sodium? Are old standbys like Campbell's and Progresso feeling the heat from Imagine, Pacific, and other smaller brands?
Whatever got the large soup makers off their corporate backsides (and back to their test kitchens), it's about time. Here's how to steer your way through the new soup aisle.
Information compiled by Danielle Hazard and Melissa Pryputniewicz.
On average, a cup of Campbell's Condensed soup has about 850 milligrams of sodium. That's half a day's worth…assuming you eat only one of the 2½ servings that the label says the can makes. Eat half a can and you get around 1,000 mg.
These days, just about every soup maker has at least one "light in sodium" or "less sodium" line. Most—like Campbell's Healthy Request and Select Harvest, Progresso Reduced Sodium, and Healthy Choice—slash the sodium to the 400s.
They swap some sodium chloride for potassium chloride, which lowers the sodium and helps lower blood pressure. Healthy Request and Select Harvest replace some ordinary salt with sea salt that has less sodium, according to Campbell. And some soups, like Tabatchnick, may not need as much sodium because they're frozen, not canned.
Just keep in mind that you've got other choices. Some regular Imagine and Dr. McDougall's carton soups start out in the 400s. Better yet, look for lower-sodium lines in the 100s to 300s by Amy's, Imagine, Pacific, and Trader Joe's. That's where you'll also find many of Tabatchnick's regular frozen soups. (The company's Low Sodium soups hit 50 mg.)
How do lower-sodium soups taste? Overall, they beat the older Health Valley No Salt Added and Campbell's Low Sodium soups hands down. But reactions varied depending on the soup and the taster. In general, chicken noodle, tomato, and split pea are more likely than other flavors to taste most like their regular counterparts.
Bottom line: let your taste buds be your guide. (See the photos below for three of our favorites.)
At least sodium is on the corporate radar screen. Campbell, for example, says that it's "beginning to replace many of its products with lower-sodium versions."
One notable change: In August, the company cut the sodium in its flagship Condensed Tomato soup from 710 mg per cup to 480 mg. Let's hope other soup makers follow—or, better yet, outdo—the leader.
In the meantime, now you have options —even more if you're a do-it-yourselfer. (Check out our soup recipes on p. 12.) And even if you don't start from scratch, you can jazz up some of the blander soups without much fuss.
Try adding rinsed and drained canned white beans, fresh basil leaves, black pepper, and grated Parmesan to tomato soup. Or simmer lentil soup with some baby spinach and diced red bell pepper and onion. Or heat up butternut squash soup with a dash of curry powder, a little minced fresh ginger, and a few cilantro leaves.
Soup for One?
"125 calories. 480 mg of sodium per serving," says the Healthy Choice Hearty Vegetable Barley Soup label. Sounds impressive…except that the calories and sodium apply to just over half the bowl.
It's hard to imagine that anyone shares these soups, which come in microwaveable bowls that don't need to be refrigerated and are clearly designed for work or eating on the go.
Campbell's Chunky Healthy Request and Select Harvest Healthy Request microwaveable soups play the same game. A food with "Healthy" in its name can't have more than 480 mg of sodium per serving, according to the government. Both Healthy Requests have 410 mg. While that's about half what's in most regular Campbell's soups, eat the whole 14 oz. bowl and you end up with some 700 mg of sodium—close to half your day's limit. Hello? FDA? Anyone home?
In contrast, Progresso's Light microwaveable soups say "60 calories per serving" on the front, but add, right below it, "100 calories per package." That's a start. Now if they would only fess up that their 700 mg of sodium per serving works out to 1,230 mg per package.
Souped Up Vegetables
"Full Serving of Vegetables," says Progresso Light Vegetable soup. Ditto for Campbell's Chunky Healthy Request New England Clam Chowder.
Companies are competing to be rich in vegetables? That's a good thing…sometimes.
When Campbell's Clam Chowder says vegetables, it means white potatoes—which are more like white flour than a nutrient-rich vegetable—and celery.
And a full serving of vegetables means mostly tomato paste in Progresso Vegetable Classics Tomato Rotini and Campbell's Select Harvest Harvest Tomato with Basil. There's nothing wrong with tomatoes, but there's nothing special about what's essentially a bowl of watered down tomato paste.
Looking for vegetables? If you like puréed soups, check out Campbell's V8, Imagine, and Trader Joe's boxed soups. Many are Best Bites or Honorable Mentions and contain mainly vegetables like squash, sweet potatoes, carrots, or broccoli. No pasta or rice and no chewy chunks of meat or chicken.
On a chilly day, you can warm yourself up and polish off a serving of vegetables in three easy steps: pour, heat, and eat.
Are the days of canned soup numbered? Nearly all can liners (and some plastic bottles) contain a chemical called Bisphenol A (BPA), a building block of plastic that's in the epoxyresin used to line cans.
In some animal studies, BPA seemed to alter maternal, sexual, and other behaviors that are influenced by hormones. And some—though not all—animal studies suggest that BPA may increase the risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. (See "Hard Questions About a Hard Plastic," Nutrition Action, April 2008, p. 8.)
In December, when Consumer Reports magazine analyzed 19 different foods, some of the highest levels of BPA turned up in the two canned soups it tested: Progresso Vegetable Classics Vegetable and Campbell's Condensed 25% Less Sodium Chicken Noodle. (The highest levels were in canned green beans).
The Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon decide how much BPA is safe. In 2009, a congressional subcommittee charged that the FDA's earlier decisions on BPA were too heavily influenced by studies sponsored by the American Plastics Council.
Until the FDA acts—or until companies voluntarily change the kind of cans they use—you can avoid or reduce your exposure to BPA by buying soup in cartons or cups.
Kudos to Campbell. Some of its Select Harvest soups use brown rice and (mostly) whole-grain pasta.
While they don't have enough rice or pasta to supply much fiber, there's no reason why soups should use refined white grains when whole grains taste at least as good. (Odds are, you won't even notice the difference.)
In contrast, Progresso boasts about the seven grams of fiber in a serving of each of its four High Fiber soups. While some of that comes from beans and/or vegetables, some also comes from a powder (or liquid) called "soluble corn fiber."
Do isolated fibers like corn fiber lower the risk of constipation, heart disease, diabetes, or any other health problem? No one knows. And it looks like Progresso doesn't care…as long as it sells soup.