Soup's popularity can be attributed to its role as a comfort food, with convenience and variety also important factors.
“M'm! M'm! Good!” is an accurate description of recent developments in the soup category, with product introductions being driven by consumer interest in healthful product formulation, convenience of purchase/use, and desire for upscale/gourmet flavors.

Major soup brands include Campbell Soup, private label and Progresso; numerous other branded and private label manufacturers account for the remaining sales of the soup market. With over 50% of the soup market, Campbell is the world's largest soup company. Soup accounts for nearly half of the company's annual $7.5 billion in sales, and the familiar red and white labels are a mainstay of many time-tested recipes. General Mills' Progresso is also a major player in the soup market, holding approximately 12% of the total soup market share in 2005, and nearly 30% of the ready-to-serve category.

Healthfulness of Formulation

According to a study by Mintel International, there is a considerable market for healthier soup, as both low-fat and/or low-sodium content are important to consumers. According to the exclusive consumer research appearing in Mintel International's report "Soup—U.S.—July 2006," 51% of the 1,009 adults surveyed reported that they eat low-fat/low-sodium soup. Some 55% of the female respondents eat low-fat/low-sodium soups, while 45% of the male respondents reported that they did so.

Reducing sodium consumption to improve cardiovascular health has recently become a goal of consumers. Though sodium is a vital mineral for health, the levels in the current U.S. diet are 4,000 to 6,000mg per day, while dietary guidelines released last year set the guideline at 1,500 to 2,300mg. The American Medical Association (AMA) formally is backing a campaign to halve the amount of sodium in processed foods over the next 10 years. On June 13, 2006, the AMA urged the FDA to revoke rules that have allowed sodium to go unregulated for decades.

Working ahead of that pronouncement, the Campbell Soup Company introduced in February 2006 a major corporate initiative to reduce sodium through the use of sea salt. Utilizing a unique, all-natural sea salt to help lower sodium by at least 25%, reformulated Campbell's Soup products will still retain the flavor profiles consumers expect from Campbell, according to the company. The key to its use in soups is in sophisticated blending and flavoring techniques, essential to the development of great tasting products with reduced sodium content. The new soup products, available in retail stores in August, are the result of years of testing to ensure sodium reduction does not result in a tradeoff in flavor. Juli Mandel Sloves, manager of brand communications for Campbell Soup Company, reflects, “Sodium reduction efforts at Campbell's have been a journey which began in the late 1960s. We are announcing a major breakthrough with our current sodium reduction efforts, and we will continue this journey, with the goal of offering the consumer more exciting options over the coming years.”

Campbell's sodium reduction initiatives include 11 new and 21 reformulated soups, with 25%-45% less sodium than their regular varieties. The company will offer 25% less sodium versions of its top-selling chicken noodle, tomato and cream of mushroom soups and also will expand its line of “Campbell's Healthy Request” soups to include reduced sodium versions of popular Chunky and Select ready-to-serve soups. In keeping with the criteria for “healthy” foods, all “Campbell's Healthy Request” soups contain 480mg of sodium or less and 3g of fat or less per serving, as well as positive nutrient benefits, such as a full serving of vegetables or a good source of protein in every serving.

Leanne Hearne, R&D director for Progresso, shares, “Progresso is also introducing a four-flavor line of healthy soups called Healthy Favorites that meet the healthy requirements of 480mg of sodium or less, low in fat and low in saturated fat.” Last year, Progresso began an advertising campaign of its 32-flavor line of 100 calorie per serving (or less) soups.

More information about Campbell's healthy options is available at Campbell's Center for Nutrition & Wellness (CCNW); please see “Website Resources” for more information. The site also features Campbell's Soup for Life Plan, a wellness and weight-loss program that revolves around soup as a way to help control calories and lose weight.

Looking ahead, Mintel's "Soup--U.S.--July 2006," report predicts that consumer concerns about obesity and heart disease will drive new product introductions incorporating “healthy extras” such as omega-3s and whole grains.

Packaging and Convenience

According to Mintel's soup report, convenience in soup packaging is key to driving lunch sales. In 2005, the average lunch break was just 31.5 minutes and, according to the National Restaurant Association's 1999 “What's For Lunch” survey, 43% of respondents took 15 minutes or less for lunch. This makes quick, convenient lunch options a necessity for consumers, especially since many are eating on the go, notes Mintel. According to “What's For Lunch,” 29% of respondents eat lunch at their desk, while 15% eat in their car. Up until now, soup has not been a viable option because it has traditionally been too difficult to heat and transport. But with new packaging introductions, including single-serve micro bowls and sippable soup, convenience has been introduced to the category. Single-serve bowls also meet the needs of empty-nesters and smaller households, as consumers often are cooking for only one or two people.

Campbell's Soup at Hand, introduced in 2002, was the first truly portable soup product. This has been followed with introductions of microwaveable soup bowls by both Campbell and General Mills, which now makes soup a feasible option for a “lunch on the go.” Campbell was the first supplier to offer portable soup, including eight varieties of Campbell's Select, nine varieties of Campbell's Chunky and three new RTS products in microwaveable bowls in 2005: chicken noodle, tomato and vegetable. General Mills introduced Progresso Soup Microwaveable Bowls in February 2006, with pull-tabs for easy opening. Flavors include chicken noodle, minestrone, lentil, chicken wild rice, vegetable and Italian-style wedding. Progresso promotes “bringing a sense of home into the office” with nine short “soup” operas online to enjoy while eating lunch at a desk (see “Website Resources”).

From a shopping standpoint, selecting soup in a retail store traditionally has been perceived as inconvenient. Recent research showed that the grocery store soup aisle is the second hardest aisle to navigate, second only to the cough and cold section. Responding to this research, Campbell developed the iQ Maximizer, a gravity-fed shelving system. This system holds the cans sideways, making it easier to see and read labels, providing space for improved signage, highlighting brands and flavors. Sloves states, “Initially introduced for Campbell's condensed soups, iQ Maximizer's positive reception by consumers and the trade has allowed Campbell to expand the system this year to include Chunky, Select and microwaveable bowls.” Feedback from consumers suggests that the more visible and easy it is to find different varieties of soup, the more they are likely to buy. Campbell's iQ Maximizer is now in over 15,000 grocery stores nationwide, and that number is growing.

Upscale/Gourmet Flavors

Soup often is cited as a comfort food, with familiar flavors such as chicken noodle and cream of mushroom retaining high popularity. However, due to exposure to new flavors through ethnic restaurants, TV cooking shows, international travel, and a diverse U.S. population, consumers are now exposed to and very interested in more gourmet and ethnic varieties. According to research by Mintel, taste is still the most important factor when purchasing soup. The tastes in the marketplace are considerably different now than 10 (or even five) years ago.

Offerings perceived as gourmet include Campbell's Select Gold Label, the company's first line of aseptically processed, ready-to-serve super premium soups in the U.S. Aseptic processing allows for thicker, more premium products, which are packaged in square cartons. Select Gold offers “35 distinctive soups using premium ingredients to please your sophisticated palate.” With the tagline, “Why settle when you can select,” upscale varieties include: Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato; Golden Butternut Squash; Blended Red Pepper and Black Bean; Creamy Portobello Mushroom and Italian Tomato with Basil and Garlic; Southwestern Corn will be added to the line in August.

The Soup Man, Al Yeganeh, is more commonly recognized as Seinfeld's “The Soup Nazi.” His company's website lists its corporate mission as “To Make the Best Soup in the World!” The New York Times is quoted as stating, “This is art, not soup!,” and Zagat has also given the soups a top rating. The Soup Man's upscale soups include bisques, chowders, borschts and vichyssoise.

Specializing in Mexican foods, Juanita's Foods now has added a Caldo de Pollo (Chicken & Vegetable) variety to the line. On the company website, the food manufacturer boasts that this is the first canned Caldo de Pollo ever, bringing the flavor of Mexico to the table with a traditional homemade recipe.

Pacific Natural Foods recently introduced a Cashew Carrot Ginger Soup, featuring coconut milk, cashews and spices coupled with carrots, roasted garlic and ginger. The Asian-inspired soup is touted as “delivering the perfect yin and yang of savory and spicy flavors.”

Several retailers have brought interesting new entries to the gourmet/ethnic market: Target Corp., through its Archer Farms label, introduced a Gazpacho Soup to its stores. This product is a ready-to-serve, all-natural soup said to be made with fresh peeled tomatoes blended with chopped cucumbers, onions, sweet red bell peppers, jalapeño, garlic and cilantro. Lobster Bisque Home-style Soup also is available, said to be made using fresh-tasting lobster, cream, tomatoes, brandy and spices for an authentic, traditional bisque.

Trader Joe's introduced a private-label Caribbean vegetable soup. Inspired by the flavors of the West Indies, the shelf-stable product features chunks of potato flavored with coconut milk, pineapple, ginger and curry leaves. More recently, Authentic New Mexican Chicken Chile Verde joined the Trader Joe's line. It is a microwaveable, hearty blend of chicken, tomatoes, spices and chile peppers.

Website Resources: -- Campbell's Center for Nutrition & Wellness -- Progresso's lunchtime “soup” operas -- Website of The Soup Man, Al Yeganeh -- Juanita's Foods (Mexican soups)

Sidebar: Authentic Ethnic Sauces at Home

The popularity of gourmet ethnic cuisine has prompted many fun, new “quick and easy” introductions in the sauce category. These products allow consumers to create authentic dishes at home, with minimum effort.

Sable & Rosenfeld Kashmiri Curry Gourmet Sauce is said to “bring North Indian cooking home.” The tomato-based sauce includes the classic flavors of garlic, ginger and coriander. Other ethnic-inspired flavors in the line include: Cashew Curry, Coconut Curry, Oriental Thai and Asian Peanut.

Barefoot Contessa, better known for her television and book fame, now offers an Indonesian Ginger Marinade for meat, fish and chicken. Other items include Asian Salmon Marinade and Tequila Lime Marinade.

Lovers of Indian cuisine will be enticed by Ethnic Gourmet's back label copy, which reads, “Calcutta, India's 'City of Joy' is famous for its savory culinary appetite,” which extends from seafood and chicken to meat-and-vegetable dishes. Taj Calcutta Masala Simmer Sauce has been specially formulated combining exotic herbs, spices and tangy tomato, capturing all the authenticity of Calcutta's legendary cuisine.

Meanwhile, other countries are promoting authentic “American” sauces:

In South Africa, Woolworths Cajun Sauce and Seasoning is said to be a Louisiana-style cream sauce with Cajun seasoning. This product comes with a recipe for Cajun chicken.

In Israel, La Finesse now offers Las Vegas, an American-style barbecue sauce for meat and meat dishes.

In Sweden, Uncle Ben's Around the World offers an American barbecue sauce.