Soup or stew can serve as a side dish, a snack or a complete dinner. Manufacturers formulating soups should take into consideration the end-user’s needs in order to ascertain nutritional, functional, sensory and economic targets.

Today, the food choices of many consumers are based on the individuals’ food ethics, meaning they eat based on their personal dietary guidelines. Some are concerned with reducing sodium and cholesterol levels in an effort to avert heart problems, while vegetarians want full-bodied flavor without actually eating meat.

A report published by Mintel International (Chicago) found that popular “low in…” positioning claims, such as low-calorie and low-fat, increased by 51% during the second half of 2004, in comparison with the first half, to meet with growing demands from health-conscious consumers.

Sodium content also has been slashed in response to recent research, which has highlighted the recommended daily intake as between 1,100mg and 3,300mg for an adult. “Soups, stews and side dishes that provide a variety for those seeking to adhere to similar guidelines will likely flood grocery aisles in coming years,” reports Mintel.

“One of the most common and simplest ways to reduce calories from fat is with natural gums,” says Carlos Sanchez, vice president of quality and technology at Juanita’s Foods (Wilmington, Calif.). Fat has major functionality in flavor delivery. Suppliers have come up with improved types of gums to lower calories and still provide a good flavor delivery.

Also, suppliers have formulated dietary fiber into meat analogs. Fiber is a component that is beneficial in combating heart disease and certain types of cancer. Using soy or whey protein can enhance the healthfulness of the food. An FDA heart healthy claim can be assigned to a product containing 6.25g of soy protein per serving if the requirements for sodium and fat also are met. Additionally, naturally occurring soy isoflavones have been shown to reduce the incidence of breast and prostate cancers.

The Meatless Menagerie

“Processors typically use meat analogs with meat and poultry to improve nutritional quality and sensory acceptability, but incorporating vegetable protein as a meat extender can foster economic advantages, also,” advises Matthew K. McMindes, global director of applied technology at a soy protein company.

Oftentimes, meat analogs are used in combination with real meat to enhance flavor or for cost benefits. The most common meat analog will use 70% of a meat ingredient, while the other 30% would include a blend of gums with flavorings, says Sanchez. The most typical example would be re-formed meat or meat that would otherwise be discarded or wasted. The other kind of meat analog contains 10%-20% meat, with the other 80% of ingredients consisting of another component, such as soy protein. There also are vegetarian meat analogs that can be made with soy, dairy or wheat proteins.

“The protein nutrition from textured soy protein concentrates is similar to meat, milk or egg protein and since they are high in protein (70% on a moisture-free basis), protein per serving targets can more easily be achieved [in soups],” explains McMindes.

Furthermore, meat alternatives do not contain cholesterol, are typically lower in fat and calories, and appeal to consumers who have religious dietary restrictions, those who have made vegetarian lifestyle choices or “flexitarians,” those who want to reduce their consumption of meat products.

Textured soy protein (TSP) is very easy to use in a soup or stew, says McMindes. Meat analogs are prepared by hydrating high-quality vegetable protein ingredients such as soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, textured soy protein concentrates, wheat gluten and textured wheat gluten, either singly or in combination with flavorings, colorings and other minor ingredients. “High-quality meat analogs and high-quality meat used in soups or stews have a similar shelflife,” offers McMindes. However, these textured soy proteins do not require pre-cooking, as do their meat counterparts.

“Meat analogs can be formulated to have eating qualities indistinguishable from their meat counterparts,” says McMindes. The products can take the form of meat granules, chunks, flakes or shreds. They can emulate emulsified meats such as frankfurters; whole muscle meats such as shredded chicken breast, pork or beef; ham-type cubes; and even fermented meats such as pepperoni. All of these can be added to soups or stews. With the addition of caramel coloring, TSP can be formulated to look like cooked beef in soups and stews.

When using protein ingredients, moisture retention can be impacted by the pH of the soup or stew. Low-pH soups, such as those that are tomato-based, reduce the water-holding capacity of the protein ingredients. In high-pH soups, the protein ingredients will hold more moisture, explains McMindes. “This can be advantageous if a softer texture is desired or be challenging if a firm texture is desired.” Discussing texture targets and pH levels with a protein supplier prior to formulation will help fashion the ideal protein for the application.

Soup'erior Flavor

Natural, artificial and WONF (with other natural flavors) flavors can be added to meat analogs to achieve meat flavors. “Upon heating, meat analogs typically will assume the flavor of the soup or stew, as the flavors infuse into the meat analog,” says McMindes. The fibrous, textured soy protein products are well-suited to absorb and hold onto flavors in soups and stews.

In the last five years, there has been tremendous progress in reducing the salt content in foods, using natural flavor salts and flavor enhancers. Some of these sodium-reduced products employ substances such as soy sauces, some milk-derived components and spices such as rosemary, peppermint and amino acids from chicken, adds Sanchez. In the U.S., Pritikin Foods (Bloomfield, N.J.) launched a range of 99% fat-free, low-sodium soups, with 65% less sodium than other brands.

Depending on their characteristics (cream, broth, etc.), stocks, roux and bases are used in soups, stews and other soupy side dishes to create flavor. A roux blends ingredients with butter and flour and most often is used in cream-based soups.

At Juanita's Foods, the company's mission is to design authentic Mexican foods that deliver the most natural and appealing products with the most basic recipes. Sanchez says one question is always at the top of mind. “What can we do to enhance the recipe or compensate for the flavor or texture loss? Finding the equilibrium is the key,” he offers.

“The flavor for our soup comes from a natural stock that is made by cooking meat on the bone,” says Sanchez of his company's traditional products like Menudo, Meatball Soup, Chile Verde, Chile Colorado and Pozole. Stocks are formed from the concentrated broth of cooked meat. Commercially, bone stock is used as an ingredient that adds to and rounds out the flavor.

Some meats like beef and pork are more sensitive to heat processing. “In return, depending on the type of recipe, we might compensate with hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) and other natural flavor enhancers,” states Sanchez. HVP is made from soy or corn. It is a flavor enhancer that commonly is used in soups, broths, sauces, gravies, flavoring and spice blends to improve upon or create the umami flavor of meats and poultry.

One of the problems the R&D team at Juanita's encountered while formulating the ready-to-serve and condensed soups was the flavor loss which normally occurs during heat processing. For example, the pork used in the Pork Pozole soup had a tendency to lose more flavor than other meats when heated. After trying different flavor enhancers, a flavor supplier helped reach the solution.

Several ingredient technology trends have allowed for advances in the soup and stew category. For example, to achieve a better meat flavor, a protein mix can be heated in a reactor to break down the protein into amino acids. Natural blends of vegetables and a combination of spices also help add flavor in a healthy manner. “Like us, some soup manufacturers are going back to fresher, natural spices and herbs,” offers Sanchez.

The loss of color also was a problem at Juanita Foods, and it was solved by developing natural spice blends to make the soup's color more resistant to heat.

There are several technologies on the market to enhance aroma and flavor. With flavor encapsulation, the essence of the flavor is put in a starch or dextrose base, made into a paste and then spray-dried. The result is a powder with flavor inside each capsule. Flavor encapsulation is good for beverages but, unfortunately, it is not as resistant to heat processing. “A canning company would have limited use of this type of enhancer,” says Sanchez.

Crystallized encapsulation, however, leads a new generation of flavor delivery systems that protect the flavor inside a crystallized substance--like a blend of sugar, salt or a gum, for example--instead of a spray-dried starch base.

“When heating the stew, aroma is a major factor because aroma attracts consumers to a product first,” says Sanchez. After aroma, delivery becomes important and then texture. Sometimes, manufacturers want components to release aroma to make the product more appealing. Crystallized matrix encapsulation can help to achieve more intense aromas.

Souped Up!

“In terms of improving texture, the most important treatment is controlling the heat process,” says Sanchez. There is an optimum cooking time and temperature that will provide the best texture for vegetables and meat components. Exceeding the optimum temperature will cause mushy results, and flavor loss. “A stew that is mushy is [unappetizing],” he remarks.

The most common process that extends shelflife is high-temperature, short-time cooking (HTST). Unfortunately, at times, it can reduce flavor perception and cause textural problems. “In the past, when we used HTST, it only was possible to pasteurize liquid products but not stews,” recalls Sanchez. The machinery would not allow large pieces of vegetables and meat to flow through the heat exchangers without burning. “Recent advances in technology can prevent those challenges,” advises Sanchez.

If a manufacturer plans an industrial scale-up of a kitchen soup or stew recipe, the flow of ingredients will have relevant consequences on the formulation, advises Sanchez. Vegetables like carrots and potatoes should be washed, diced and sliced, washed again and then boiled. Problems will arise if the time between slicing and weighing is not minimized before vegetables are put in a kettle.

“When a manufacturer does not have a continuous flow, the other characteristics suffer,” warns Sanchez. Meat is more resistant to longer preparation times, but harvested vegetables need to be stored in a refrigerated room.

The texture can be enhanced by boiling the vegetables in food-approved chemical solutions like calcium chloride. Blanching inhibits the enzymes responsible for destroying and softening the texture of vegetables. “If a diced carrot or potato will be used, but not immediately, then blanching the vegetables will prolong the texture,” instructs Sanchez.

A Running Soup Opera

Convenience has caused soup processing to evolve from canned and conventionally heated soups to microwaved convenience products that do not require cooking spoons or bowls.

According to a Mintel report, microwaveable soups increased by approximately 60% in the second half of 2004.

“Very thin broths and simple stocks that pour out of the packaging easier can add to the convenience of a product,” says Sanchez. Manufacturers can include texture improvers like hydrocolloids/gums and calcium chloride, which will prevent clumping.

When formulating microwave soups, manufacturers should consider how the product will absorb the energy from the microwave. The heat will advance in higher temperatures in the center. “They should account for whether or not the stew or soup will be put in a microwave dish, the configuration of the vegetables, and the flavor that can be lost when the microwave soup is being heated,” says Sanchez.

When formulating meat analogs into soups or stews, the product developer should have clearly established objectives, constraints, methods of measurement and a definition for what success looks like.

Re“stew”rant Trends

Stew, the quintessential comfort food, is getting a makeover from fine dining restaurants. According to Mintel's Menu Insights (Chicago), fine dining restaurants account for 43% of the menu mentions of stew, surprisingly trailing slightly the family and casual dining stew mentions by only 6%.

Family and casual operators serve up traditional favorites such as Brunswick, beef and seafood stews. These ingredients are traditional and include key meal staples such as onions, corn, okra, lima beans, potatoes, beef and fish. In contrast, fine dining restaurants are overhauling the basic stew formula by using innovative ingredients, incorporating stew into entrées and restoring old traditions. These restaurants are not just serving their stews in a traditional large bowl. One fine restaurant is serving Plantain Crusted Mahi-Mahi over a braised beef short rib stew, with tomato escabeche.

According to Menu Insights, fine dining restaurants are using an inventive assortment of ingredients such as sherry, gnocchi, yogurt, Black Trumpet mushrooms, Chayote squash, Oaxaca cheese, corn meal (corn masa and polenta), and Kumamoto oysters to contrive their stews.

The fine dining operators are also tailoring stews common to the restaurant's cuisine and traditions. Fine Mexican restaurants are serving Pozole Rojo, Mexico's classic pork and hominy stew, infused with rich red chiles, topped with all the classic crunchy, aromatic garnishes and served with one poached egg. Fine dining Italian restaurants are offering the traditional Zuppe Di Pesce, mixed seafood stew with Maine scallop, shrimp, mussel, clam, calamari and fish in a spicy tomato broth with garlic rubbed crostino, and the Cioppino, savory Italian seafood stew accented with fine herbs and fresh fennel. Other fine dining restaurants are bringing back the old tradition of the Bouillabaisse, French style stew with clams, shrimp, mussels and fish served in a saffron broth. Clearly, there is much ado about stew.

Maria Caranfa, Menu Insights, Mintel International