Soupersize Nutrition

Organic Soups Taste Great—and They’re Healthy, Too

Nothing beats the aroma and taste of homemade soup on chilly autumn evenings. Today, however, Americans barely even have time to make a sandwich, let alone to simmer made-from-scratch broth and organic veggies. Fortunately, organic food companies all over the country are producing natural ready-to-eat soups and broths for those with the desire to eat nutritious meals—even if there isn’t much time.

©Amy's Kitchen

The soup aisle has always been a popular stop in grocery and convenience stores. These days, however, market leaders like Campbell’s are not seeing their customary growth and profits. The reason may be because people are becoming more aware of what they eat, and many no longer consider typical condensed soup—loaded with sodium, and filled with overcooked vegetables, limp noodles and some type of animal-based stock—to be part of a healthy diet.

Sick of the Salt?

According to recent research conducted by natural products marketing firm SPINS, the organic soup market enjoyed a 12 percent surge in sales from 2003 to 2004, while the rest of the soup industry remains relatively stable. High-sodium foods, such as condensed and commercial ready-to-eat soups, are particularly risky for people with high blood pressure or hypertension. One can of Campbell’s condensed soup contains 2,290 milligrams (mg) of sodium, which approaches the recommended daily allowance of 2,400 mg.

Some companies have introduced lower-sodium and "healthier" soups, such as Campbell’s Healthy Request line (which averages 460 mg of sodium), in an attempt to attract cautious soup shoppers. These products, however, are not making the splash that soup companies anticipated. Instead, many consumers are turning to organic brands from such companies as Amy’s Kitchen, Health Valley Soups and Walnut Acres. Andy Berliner, president of natural products company Amy’s Kitchen, says the growth of organic soups can be attributed to two reasons: "Taste and health consciousness." He says, "[Ready-made] organic soups are for people who want to eat healthier but don’t have a lot of time to cook—you just feel better about it if you know it’s organic."

Natural organic soups tend to be considerably lower in sodium, averaging 390 mg. And according to New Scientist magazine, organic soups containing high levels of salicylic acid can help fight inflammation, bowel cancer and atherosclerosis. Plants use salicylic acid, which they excrete naturally, to combat stress and disease. Since organic food plants defend themselves against these elements without the help of pesticides and herbicides, they naturally possess higher levels of this natural anti-inflammatory serum.

Natural soups, made with organic vegetables and beans, also generally contain more fiber, protein, calcium and zinc, and usually have fewer calories and less fat than the leading soups. Health Valley’s Fat-Free 14 Garden Vegetable Soup ($2.50) has only 80 calories per serving, and provides 16 percent of the recommended daily intake of fiber, 25 percent of daily vitamin C, and 200 percent of daily vitamin A.

Most organic soups are also made with soy protein—a heart healthy meat alternative. Health Valley—currently the world’s largest user of organic ingredients—makes 15 various types of veggie chili containing soy protein that are very low in fat, calories and cholesterol; the company also offers medium and hot versions for those with more adventurous taste buds.

Canned Soup: Can it be Better?

Most people can agree that a bowl of warm soup provides a certain level of comfort and a sense of nourishment. It is even more comforting to know that your soup was made with vegetables and grains from locally owned organic, GMO-free farms and was packaged and sent to your local grocer. Organic soups come in all different packaging—steel cans, aseptic cartons, glass jars and dried-soup cups. Some consumers are wary, though, of the effects of canning on the nutrition, taste and safety of food.

Companies like Health Valley and Amy’s Kitchen typically use recyclable steel cans that are lined with a food-grade epoxy. Both Ellen Deutsch, chief growth officer for Hain Celestial Group (owner of Health Valley) and Bill Twieg, technical director for Amy’s Kitchen, assure that the epoxy coating is safe, and does not affect the flavor or odor of the soups. A 1995 study raised some concerns, but a 2002 British government followup concluded that epoxy can linings "are unlikely to be of concern to health, and that there is no reason for consumers to change their source of foodstuffs as a result of these findings."

As for the nutrition, some observers have argued that canned organic vegetables and soups may actually be even healthier than your own organic homemade soup. Interestingly, research conducted at the University of Illinois in 1999 suggested that canned vegetables and beans actually retain more of their vitamins and minerals. Organic soups are often comprised of freshly picked vegetables and beans. They retain their nutritional values, because of the canning process, whereas most fresh veggies take days and sometimes weeks to reach their consumer, thus losing a great deal of their nutritional value. Green beans, broccoli, corn and carrots, for instance, lose up to 40 percent of vitamin C within hours or a few days after harvest, and fresh tomatoes can lose significant levels of lycopene with age. Recent studies have shown that the body can absorb lycopene in canned tomatoes and tomato paste 2.5 times better than from fresh tomatoes.

Steel cans and glass jars can usually be recycled through your local recycling centers. Aseptic containers, used, for example, by Pacific Foods for their line of Natural Broths, are handy because they are shelf-stable, and are produced (and usually filled) using less energy than other commercial forms of packaging. The weight of one aseptic container of vegetable broth is made up of 96 percent broth and four percent container, meaning there is less waste. These packages are notoriously difficult to recycle, however, and have therefore earned the ire of some environmentalists (see "Juicing the Waste Stream," Consumer News, November/December 2002).

So, yes—organic soup is good for you. But is it "mm mm good" for you? The bottom line is that when it comes to actually purchasing soup, consumers want to know if it is going to taste good. Most of the natural soups on the market are excellent. Some lack a little flavor, but the labels are good indicators of this. If it says "mild" and "no salt," then your seasoning expectations should be lower. Otherwise, natural soups usually taste better because of the way they’re made. Most conventional soups have been simmered to soften the ingredients, and then, during the canning process, are heated to extreme temperatures and vigorously shaken. This rids the can of any pathogens, but can also change the makeup and the consistency of the soup.

Berliner says, "Amy’s Kitchen has no pressure from shareholders so we are more open to trying different things in the process, like adding ingredients at different times." Berliner says his company will not release a new soup flavor if it tastes like "canned soup."

While organic soups are frequently dairy-free, gluten-free, chole

sterol-free, fat-free, GMO-free, sodium-free, and wheat-free, they are definitely not free. Natural soups are usually a bit pricier than conventional brands. However, since organic soup consumers may be getting better nutrition with every spoonful, they may be getting more for their dollar.

KATHERINE HARTLEY is an E intern who enjoys natural foods.