Forget condensed cream of tomato and cream of mushroom. Clam chowder and seafood bisque? Yawn. In a $4 billion soup industry struggling with an identity crisis and stagnant sales, these tried-and-true sellers are ho-hum, even though they probably still bring in the lion's share of the dollars.

Today, the excitement lies in more exotic concoctions, innovative packaging and even organic/natural formulations. As the industry tries to spur interest in a food category that, while floundering, still has the ability to connect with consumers on multiple levels, companies are thinking beyond the traditional can of soup.

That's what Mintel International Group Ltd. (Chicago) says in a May 2004 study of the soup category. With overall soup sales hardly budging year-over-year, Mintel says the industry is looking for ways to make soup more enticing. Manufacturers are finding some success by introducing more ready-to-serve soups, soups that are heartier and products that hold their flavor and consistency longer.

“Taste is the most important factor consumers take into account when choosing a specific soup product,” states Mintel's executive summary. “Manufacturers have responded by continually adding new flavor profiles and by developing ethnic-oriented flavors that appeal to consumers looking for new or exotic flavors.”

Convenience runs a close second. Mintel says sales of condensed and dry soups that take time to prepare are fading. They are taking a backseat to refrigerated, ready-to-serve and soups in microwave-ready packaging.

“Marketers of the ready-to-serve (RTS) segment can reap significant rewards as convenience and portability continue to flourish, in spite of the fact that soup is an overall mature market that exhibits little opportunity for innovation or growth in other segments,” the summary notes.

A glance at a list of new soup products introduced in 2004 supports Mintel's observations, particularly with respect to flavor profiles. The list reads like a dinner menu.

Among the new entries in General Mills' (Minneapolis) Rich & Hearty Progresso ready-to-serve line are Steak and Homestyle Noodles, Steak and Sautéed Mushrooms and, yes, even an apparently new take on an old standby, New England Clam Chowder. Others include Traditional Toasted Garlic Chicken, and something called Traditional Italian-Style Wedding Soup (meatballs and spinach in chicken broth).

Rival The Campbell Soup Co. (Camden, N.J.) rolled out a similar lineup of new soups in its heavily pitched Chunky Soups line. The canned line was expanded to include Pork Roast with Carrots and Potatoes; Savory Pot Roast; Turkey Pot Pie; Grilled Pork Loin with Vegetables and Beans; Hearty Beef Barley and Smoked Chicken with Roasted Corn Chowder.

Ethnic flavors that incorporate exotic ingredients rarely found in soups have found their way to market.

Upscale retailer Trader Joe's (Monrovia, Calif.), for example, introduced a private label Caribbean vegetable soup. Inspired by the flavors of the West Indies, the shelf-stable soup features chunks of potato flavored with coconut milk, pineapple, ginger and curry leaves. One of Bear Creek Country Kitchens' (Herber City, Utah) new dry mix soups is Santa Fe Chipotle.

And Stockpot Fresh From Italia Soups, a brand owned by Campbell's, rolled out flavors “inspired by classic regional Italian entrées,” mouthfuls like Piccatta Fresca Soup with Grilled Chicken, Artichoke & Lemon; Bada Bing Bolognese Soup with Italian Sausage & Dry White Wine and Mangia Mangia Mushroom with Cheese Ravioletti & Brandy Cream.

The flavor explosion is being fueled by both consumer demand for more complexity and the ability of base, stock and flavoring suppliers to fashion more nuanced products.

“Our suppliers have stepped up to get us the very latest bases, extracts and flavors to make innovative products,” says Renate DeGeorge, corporate chef at Winter Gardens Quality Foods Inc. (New Oxford, Pa.), a manufacturer of refrigerated soups for retail and foodservice. “There's been a lot of progress in developing notes that mimic grilled, open-fire roasted and even pan-dripped flavors, as well as ethnic flavors in the Cuban and Latino area, and even regional Italian, rustic European and peasant-style French traditions.”

The chief technical officer of a leading supplier of soup bases in frozen paste form says the company is producing more “finely tuned” hybrid bases.

“We have multiple levels of bases, foundation stocks and extracts that are more concentrated and help drive unique flavor profiles,” he says. “We're seeing demand for everything from chicken and dumplings and ribeye steak flavors to Thai flavors that use blends of ingredients like lemongrass, cilantro and coconut to Latino, Asian and even Indian flavors.”

The business development manager of one leading supplier says more soup makers are looking to develop products that have clean, GMO- and allergen-free labels. The company is meeting that demand with more dried meat stocks produced by cooking bones with adhering meat. The process also yields authentic brothy flavors. Similarly, reaction flavors and flavor enhancers derived from chicken and beef stock are “clean,” and boost the meaty notes in soups.

Homegrown Naturals Inc. (Napa, Calif.) has seen demand for its Fantastic Foods brand natural and organic dry soups climb in recent years. Its products--all either certified 70% organic or adhering to the accepted standards for natural foods--appeal to a consumer that tends to see soup as a healthy food to begin with, says Sarah Bird, vice president of marketing.

An emerging challenge Homegrown (as well as other dry mix and canned soup makers) faces is consumer migration away from those soup forms toward ready-to-eat. “The dry category we compete in has not been healthy,” she says. “We think our product can be carried into more convenient forms, but one of the challenges will be price and the consumer's willingness to pay a premium for a ready-to-serve version.”

Fairfield Farms Kitchens (Brockton, Mass.) has found consumers are willing to pay for its refrigerated RTS organic and natural soups. President and CEO Frank Carpenito says the company's Moosewood brand, which includes both natural and conventional vegetarian/vegan soups, and its Organics Classics line of organic soups, are attracting a growing following.

“It's not just the 'tree-hugger,'” he says. “For the past year, the interest out of the college/university and business/industrial cafeteria sector for our foodservice line has grown. They're looking for more depth in their menus, and organic/natural soups can appeal to a broader base than conventional soups can. Even the non-organic consumer will buy it if it tastes great.”

Formulating natural and organic soups, especially those that are sold refrigerated, can pose a challenge. Kettle Cuisine, a Chelsea, Mass., supplier of some 70 such soups to retail and foodservice, manages to do it by carefully selecting the freshest ingredients and using natural preservatives like citric acid.

Executive chef Volker Frick says a bigger challenge is formulating fresh soups that use unusual ingredients. When experimenting with a Vietnamese beef soup with herbs and rice noodles, he found it impossible to get that type of noodle to hold together. Another challenge arose in formulating a Mexican tortilla and meatball soup. “That took some time to understand,” he says. “How do you incorporate a tortilla in a soup?”

Looking further into the soup industry's future, another emerging trend might be soups that are functional in the health-promoting sense. A dairy products company in Europe, for instance, says it is exploring selling new types of fractionated whey proteins to soup companies interested in developing functional soups.

While the broad soup industry might be in the doldrums, the product itself still has power to connect with consumers on many different levels. A comfort food, convenience food, meal replacement, palate-pleaser, and perhaps even health food all in one, soup's best days may still be ahead of it.