Soup is comfort food, conjuring up warm and pleasant memories: A bowl of get-well chicken soup, a steaming hot cup of vegetable soup on a winter day a thermos of tomato soup to warm you at a football or soccer game. Soup is a traditional first course, but also a fine meal in itself or alongside a salad or a sandwich. But nutritionally, not all soups are created equal. At the supermarket, soup products range from low-fat, low-calorie broths to creamy, fat-laden bisques. And a big drawback for most commercial soups is their high sodium content. Get smarter about how to buy healthy soups using our guide.
Soups and your health
Soups can be great additions to your diet. They’re a super way to work in extra vegetables. Depending on the ingredients, they can be packed with vitamins and minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and protein. Research shows that people who regularly consume soup come closer to meeting the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and have lower intakes of fat and higher intakes of folate, beta carotene and vitamin C.
Soup is also a great satisfier, and has been linked to reduced appetite, lower fat consumption and lower body weight. Soup can aid in weight loss because it tends to have low energy density (fewer calories for the volume compared to other foods), which makes it more filling, so you may eat less during the rest of the meal. And because it’s rich in flavors and textures, it’s also more satisfying than simply sipping a beverage to ward off hunger.
But soup—particularly commercial soups—can also tip the sodium scale with 1,000 milligrams or more of sodium per one-cup serving. Ramen noodles, while quick and easy on the budget, are among the worst sodium offenders, clocking in at more than 1,700 milligrams in a single-serving package. That’s not a wise meal choice when you consider that the recommended sodium limit for most adults is 1,500 milligrams for an entire day.
Understanding soup products
While canned soups are the old standby, supermarkets are also stocked with ready-to-serve soups in aseptic boxes, fresh refrigerated soups, frozen soups and dried soups in packets and in single-serving disposable cups. These last are especially convenient and portable—you just add boiling water to the cup.
When reading soup labels, note that a serving size is just one cup—but many people eat more than that. In fact, you may finish off the whole can, which might technically contain two (or more) servings. That means you have to adjust the calories, sodium and other numbers on the nutrition label to reflect what you are really consuming. For example, if the label lists a serving as having 800 milligrams of sodium (a high amount to begin with), the whole can will give you 1,600 milligrams of sodium.
There’s nothing like chicken soup for a bad cold. Its hot vapors may clear nasal passages, and any fluid is helpful for cold symptoms. Having a relative make the soup might enhance the effect. But some scientists have sought a more precise explanation.
Soups: good-to-know facts
A few years ago, some food companies began cutting the sodium in some of their regular soups in response to calls for the food industry to offer more lower sodium products. Granted, these soups were never “low sodium”—and were never labeled as such—but every little reduction in sodium helps if you need to limit your intake. Unfortunately, it seems that these soups haven’t been winning any popularity contests with consumers who are used to saltier fare—and in response to poor sales, at least one major company has added some of the sodium back. So check the label to make sure the sodium numbers in your favorite soups haven’t recently changed. Keep in mind that soups formulated with less sodium haven’t disappeared—they’ve just dwindled. And there are still plenty of “reduced-sodium,” “low-salt” and even “no-salt-added” soups on the market. If you give them a chance, you may get used to them.
Healthy grocery shopping tips for soups
- Choose broth- and vegetable-based soups over cream soups. You’ll save on calories and cut fat by as much as two-thirds.
- Stock up on canned soups and those in aseptic packages (for the longest shelf life), frozen soups (typically good for 2 to 3 months) or fresh-made.
- Check and compare the sodium content. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that products labeled “healthy” contain no more than 480 milligrams of sodium per serving. Most commercial soups have far more than that, so a more practical limit to aim for is 600 milligrams of sodium per serving. If you need to limit your sodium further, look for “’low-sodium” soups, which have no more than 140 milligrams of sodium per serving.
- If you buy low-sodium or reduced-sodium soups, be sure to pick up some fresh herbs as well as dried spices (such as basil, oregano, tarragon, ginger, nutmeg, whole peppercorns) to “soup up” the flavor.
- Choose a soup with at least 3 grams of fiber per serving, which is more than 10 percent of the Daily Value for fiber. Bean, lentil, vegetable and barley soups provide the most fiber.
- Check the ingredients list for added sugars. Choose soups that contain no more than 6 grams of sugar per serving. Some, such as Campbell’s Soup at Hand Creamy Tomato, have more than 20 grams of sugar in a single-serve container.
- To keep calories and saturated fat in check, skip cream soups—cream of potato, cream of tomato, cream of broccoli and the like. If you can’t resist them, at least reconstitute them with low-fat or nonfat milk.
- If you prefer organic, there are several brands to choose from. But don’t assume the soup is more nutritious (or less salty) simply because it’s organic. Check the nutrition label to be sure the numbers meet your nutrition goals.
- To super-charge the nutritional value of commercial soups, stock up on quick-cooking fresh, frozen or low-sodium canned vegetables that you can add to the pot at home. For a real fiber boost, buy beans or brown rice to cook and then add to the soup.
- Grab some whole-grain crackers or rolls, salad greens, and fresh fruit to round out your soup meal to perfection.
Published August 15, 2013