As consumer demand for healthy soups continues to prosper, manufacturers are introducing products to meet those needs. Featuring a heart-healthy indicator on the front of the package, Progresso’s Reduced Sodium Chicken Gumbo, for instance, notes it has 110 calories per serving, a low fat content (1.5g) and no MSG or artificial flavors.

Soup and side dishes both fall into classic family staples, and most are found in at least 50% of all U.S. households. However, the impacts of the recession and trends in each broad market have been radically different, with side dishes having benefited significantly more than soups.

Which Sectors Benefited from the Recession?
The recessionary mindset has changed consumer purchase behavior, resulting in more frugal shopping, both out of necessity for those with lower or no income, and out of fear for those still working. With unemployment in the U.S. higher than it has been for years, the impact on those who have jobs is lower confidence and restricted spending, as many seek to minimize or pay off debt.

Comfort foods that are cheap and easy to prepare; foods that remind people of childhood; and small indulgences have benefited from the recessionary mindset, and these include a wide range of side dishes. Even heading into the recession, growth in these markets was clear, and strong growth was evident, particularly in sales of rice, macaroni and cheese, and baked beans. In the soup arena, ready-to-serve broth and refrigerated fresh soup were doing best, with ramen also showing promise.

Rice has benefited from moves to convenience, plus two significant product introductions from Mars Inc. (Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice and Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Medley) and Riviana Foods Inc. (Success). The newer products’ success appears to be coming at the expense of Zatarain’s, which had been among the brand leaders at one point.

Given dry rice mixes’ much smaller percentage increases compared to dry rice and ready-to-serve, Mintel anticipates dry rice mixes will lose market share to its counterparts. However, it will be a while, if ever, until ready-to-serve overtakes it for second place in the rice category. One thing working in dry rice mixes’ favor is that it offers a wide variety of flavors that contribute to its appeal, with consumers looking to try something beyond traditional rice options.

Macaroni and cheese has benefited both from frugal spending and from a move to healthier options, as marketers have become more aware of consumer interest in whole-grain products and natural/organic products. Kraft and Annie’s Homegrown have offered healthier versions of macaroni and cheese. For Annie’s Homegrown, these products are more critical to the company’s success, as it bills itself as a company that provides healthy eating options, so having these types of foods available is part of the organization’s DNA. Its sales are a fraction of the overall segment, but they nonetheless do represent a growth area

Sales in the baked beans segment should sustain current growth levels, at least until the economy starts to rebound. Renewed interest in the segment has brought in more consumers who, ideally, will be converted to repeat buyers in both good and bad times. Moreover, baked beans are a side dish that are easily prepared, which will continue to appeal to consumers who place a premium on convenience and time-saving products. Like macaroni and cheese, baked beans are also a classic, cheap, homey/comfort food perfectly suited to the recessionary mindset--factors that are clearly playing to its benefit right now.

While Campbell, ConAgra and Heinz all have brands in the baked beans segment, none of them appear to be putting as much effort into the segment as the leader, Bush Brothers. Given that the others have a more diverse product line, their fortunes are not entirely tied to baked beans. In 2008, Bush Brothers rolled out its Bush’s Grillin’ Beans to wide distribution and achieved sales higher than any of the other large company’s brands, with the exception of ConAgra’s Van Camp line.

Analyzing side dish new product launches, as monitored by the Global New Products Database (GNPD), Mintel has segmented launches into comfort side dishes, ethnic side dishes and healthy side dishes. The overall number of new product introductions for side dishes peaked in 2007 and started to fall in 2008. This trend was particularly true for comfort side dishes. Nonetheless, comfort side dishes still are the most popular type of product introduction. The trend towards fewer comfort side dishes seems to be driven by more health-oriented new product claims for comfort side dishes, as marketers were trying to capitalize on the latest eating trends. The number of launches of ethnic and healthy side dishes has been fairly consistent over the years.

In soup, Hillside Tomato Vegetable Soup (also Chicken Soup variety) is available in a container that heats itself by just pushing the bottom. While self-heating technology has been around for a while, it is interesting to see this come back to the market. However, the consumer will need to accept a higher price for the convenience of self-heating this time around, and this is not the best time to expect such behavior from frugal shoppers.

Two of the most successful recent soup launches, Campbell Reduced Sodium and Progresso Light, continue the soup industry’s focus on expanding the portfolio of healthy soups. Consumer demand for soups with less sodium, and more fiber and vegetables, remains strong, and manufacturers have an opportunity to grow this segment.

Note, however, that Asian consumers are under-served in this market. Asian-inspired flavors of soups may drive growth among both recent and acculturated Asian immigrants. Traditional soup consumers may also try Asian-inspired soups, when looking for new and interesting flavors. Although some brands in the soup market have Asian-inspired products in their portfolios, it is evident the significant opportunity to win Asian consumers’ attention and loyalty still exists for the packaged soup industry.

In addition to this, soup manufacturers should consider partnering with local chefs and restaurants to create new, regional or local soups, which can be sold in local supermarkets and delis. There is likely to be continued interest in artisan soups, because bread served with an artisanal cheese is a simple, hearty meal that has appeal in both restaurants and at home.

Fresh and Convenient Soups are Growing
Fresh, refrigerated soups are a small but growing presence in the soup market. Refrigerated soups have largely been the domain of private label and store brands; for example, Dominick’s (under the Safeway banner) is known for offering an appealing array of fresh, refrigerated soups in its stores. It makes sense for large soup companies, such as Campbell and General Mills, to test moving into this market, at least on a limited basis, by partnering with local refrigerated soup manufacturers and local restaurants. Refrigerated soups provide an opportunity for well-known manufacturers to partner with local manufacturers and experiment with new offerings, such as chilled cucumber soup, gazpacho and other chilled soups for the summer, which is traditionally a downtime for soup sales.

The appeal of refrigerated, fresh soup is, of course, the freshness factor. These soups are made daily and positioned to appeal to consumers looking for a meal to eat in the very near future. Packaged soups cannot easily compete on this, but it is not impossible: Campbell is winning consumers over to a lower-sodium soup made with sea salt.

Packaged soup manufacturers can do even more. Freshness is a key attribute in produce, but organic and all-natural products also come into play. Developers should consider incorporating olive oil into recipes, eliminating monosodium glutamate from the recipe and creating a line of organic soups. Furthermore, even though they might not actually be “fresh,” marketing seasonal soups, such as “garden-fresh tomato basil,” cucumber or gazpacho on a limited-time basis could communicate to consumers that a company is doing its best to create and market fresh-tasting soups. Current dietary trends that emphasize health and wellness are not going away any time soon. As Baby Boomers age and develop health problems, they will continue to look to food for ways to manage health conditions.

Health Still an Issue for Soup
The sodium in soup still concerns consumers: 71% of consumers who consider the healthiness of their soup before purchase cite a soup low in sodium as being important in their decision. Another 82% of respondents over age 65 report that low-sodium is an important health consideration. These attitudes play into Campbell’s move, as discussed earlier.

It is not surprising that, given soup’s role as a comfort food and its strong association with childhood memories, consumer preferences in soup flavors and types differ widely by global region. These differences will be even more pronounced at the local level, suggesting a large opportunity for the soup industry to meet the tastes of the regional palate rather than the national.

Other key health findings from Mintel’s consumer research include:
* Low-fat soups are important, especially for older consumers (over 65): 80% of the over-65 age group report soup being low in fat is an important criterion for their soup selection.
* The 18-24-year-olds have internalized the message that fresh and less processed foods are better. These respondents are most likely to agree they limit their soup consumption for health reasons.
* Men are more likely to agree that “soup is not enough for a full meal” than women (44 vs. 28%). Campbell is dropping the NFL moms from its advertising campaigns to target men directly, and hence, change this perception.

On average, household penetration for dry soup mixes is much lower than canned soups and broths. Hispanics have the highest incidence of dry soups and bouillon usage. Typically, Hispanic cooks will use these products as a base and then add fresh vegetables and meats to prepare soups and stews. Marketers may be able to entice these consumers to try canned soups by highlighting the “fresh” components of their brands, where possible, and by providing recipe suggestions to enhance canned soups.

Change in Side Dish Consumption
While this pattern was not present in the soup category, as the economy headed into the recession, interest in most side dishes picked up. For most of the dishes Mintel reviewed, between 20-30% of respondents claimed to be eating more now than in the previous year. This uptick in consumer interest also manifested itself in increased sales (see charts).

In this segment, a slowing down in the speed of life also feeds into eating at home and cooking at home. However, it does not mean that consumers accustomed to going out for dinner, but now more focused on sitting down with the family, have suddenly learned how to cook. Side dishes are perfectly placed to take advantage of this trend, although companies globally need to be mindful of the negative impact of an uptick in eating out, as the recession fades. In the side dish arena, there are a wide range of products that are adding to their sales proposition via fortification with vitamins and minerals. This helps to enhance their nutritional standing and will tie in with current consumer needs for “value.”pf

Bill Patterson is a senior market analyst with Mintel International, a consumer, media and market research company with offices in Chicago and London. Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD) is the company’s source of global product intelligence. This article draws from Mintel’s reports, “Soup--U.S., September 2008” and “Side Dishes--U.S., June 2009.” Please visit for more information or call Mintel at 312-932-0400.

Website Resources: Type in “soups” and “side dishes” for several articles on these subjects Popular soup recipes; rank changes daily

Going Global: Soups
Health proved popular in global soup introductions, particularly items with reduced-sodium content. Under the Liebig Pur Soup brand in France, Campbell Soup introduced Potatoes, Carrots and Old-style Mustard Soup, reformulated to have 25% less salt and more seasoning, while being completely free of preservatives and colorings. The same company reduced sodium 33% for its Chicken Broth in Saudi Arabia under the Swanson Natural Goodness brand.

Calories, however, came under fire in an Italian introduction from Distriborg. Its Instant Vegetable Broth, Bjorg Brodo Vegetale, had only four calories per serving, while completely free of lactose, gluten, sugar, “animal fats” and cholesterol. Though containing more calories (60 per serving), Smart Ones Homestyle Vegetable & Noodle Soup in Canada did boast a 4g fiber content. While Maruha Nichiro Foods’ Minestrone Soup launch had slightly more calories (87 per package), it did feature seven types of vegetables simmered in a tomato-based soup, designed for consumption either heated or chilled.

Health, however, can be a curious positioning. It could simply pertain to alertness, as evidenced in Nagatanien’s Power Cup Miso for Alcohol Lovers in Japan. The cup miso soup’s patent-pending ornithine is equivalent to 70 clams, the company claims. Targeting consumers who “frequently enjoy alcohol, who want to wake up feeling fresh, whose work is very busy or who want to maintain a youthful appearance,” the miso contains 25mg of ornithine, derived from the protein in rice and soybeans during miso production, utilizing a plant-sourced lactic acid bacteria. The same company also introduced miso soups for different times of the day: Morning, Noon and Evening, using different types of miso. The morning variety, for instance, included wakame seaweed, wheat gluten and Welsh onions as toppings.