Historically seen as a comfort food, soups are credited with lessening cold symptoms and warming the soul. They can also be filling, hearty and nutritious, without necessarily being calorie-rich.

Soups offer a convenient, cost-effective means to a satisfying meal or side dish. Soups are quick and easy to prepare and have wholesome appeal. Historically seen as a comfort food, soups are credited with lessening cold symptoms and warming the soul. Soups, even with significantly less calories than some foods, can be filling, hearty and nutritious.

“Due to recessionary times, many consumers are seeking comfort foods that are both healthy and convenient, with variety and flavor. Soups can potentially fill all of these needs,” explains Eric Shinsato, technical sales support manager for a supplier of starches used in soup products.

As the nutritional trend continues, soup products are being revamped with reduced fat and sodium, and increased fiber and vegetables. Compared to baked goods, gluten-free is less of an overall challenge to the soup category, since there is a wide variety of soups--including types that are not traditionally made with grains. There is also a variety of exotic, gluten-free grains that are perfect for exotic soups. Product development opportunities in gluten-free soups include increasing the number and variety of whole-grain offerings, in addition to the broad range of vegetables, fruits and other gluten-free soup components.

Healthy Trends
The health and wellness trend continues to show its presence in the soup category, with Mintel data showing 223 total soups launched in the U.S. in the past 12 months, one third of which were dry soups. In this same period, 11 of the soups introduced utilized whole-grain claims. More than 60 of the soups contain pasta. Other claims included reduced- and low-sodium, high-fiber, low-fat, good source of vitamins and minerals, and gluten-free.

Soups, along with chowders and stews, can make significant contributions toward meeting the recommended daily needs for fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, and also serve as a useful diet tool for hunger and weight management. “Generally, soup has a lower caloric density, compared to other appetizers or main dish foods. When eaten as a snack or during a meal, soup can increase the feeling of fullness, which may reduce the total calorie intake during a particular eating occasion,” offers Elizabeth Arndt, director of research and development, for a supplier of grains used in soup.

A wide variety of ingredients can contribute to a good soup, and a few of them are discussed here: vegetables and vegetable-derived ingredients, grains, cheese bases and starches.

Vegetables Add Flavor, Fiber and Texture
Campbell’s has recently introduced 23 varieties of its Chunky Soup line, all containing a full serving of vegetables. One vegetable currently being promoted as one of the healthiest foods in the world is the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are ranked by the Center for Science in the Public Interest as number one in nutrition for all vegetables. Available in puree, juice, dried flake and flour, sweet potatoes are an easy ingredient to incorporate into soups, whether canned, frozen or dry. According to Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, “Sweet potatoes are experiencing an increase in demand, due to their year-round availability, variety of skin and flesh colors and rich nutritional profile. In fact, per capita consumption is up 21% over the last five years.”

Sweet potato in soups and stews provides good flavor and nutritional benefits. “The orange-fleshed variety is the most popular in the U.S. and contains high amounts of the phytonutrient, beta-carotene. The purple-fleshed variety has high levels of phenolic acids and anthocyanins,” contributes Van-Den Truong, Ph.D., research food technologist and associate professor at USDA-ARS, SSA Food Science Research Unit.

Sweet potatoes can also add thickening to soups, due to their high starch levels, or be used as a natural colorant (orange or purple). Sweet potato cultivars with high dry matter content (>25%), such as the white-, yellow- and purple-fleshed varieties, have better shape retention characteristics than the orange-fleshed varieties--an important consideration in chunky soups.

Peas have been used in soups for eons, making pea protein isolate a natural selection for prepared soups and mixes. Pea protein is available as a free-flowing powder, which can be easily incorporated into dry mixes with other dry ingredients. Upon cooking, pea protein isolate hydrates quickly and homogenously.

“Nutritionally speaking, pea protein isolate is 85% protein, with a rich amino acid profile delivering a positive impact on satiety,” contributes Chandani Perera, project coordinator for a supplier of pea protein and fiber. Soups with pea protein are suitable for consumers suffering from celiac disease, gluten intolerance and other food allergies. Pea protein isolate promotes creaminess and satiety and retains its nutritional properties after processing conditions, such as retorting and canning. “Pea fiber is available for boosting fiber in soups, assisting manufacturers to make fiber claims,” adds Perera.

“Vegetables, as a natural product, can have seasonal variation in color, nutrients, price and availability, sometimes causing issues with consistency in soup products. One solution is the use of vegetable concentrates and extracts, available as liquids or powders,” advises Alexis Mehaignerie, general manager for a supplier of vegetable concentrates and extracts. Concentrates and extracts derived from vegetables, such as onions, carrots and mushrooms, are available in specific flavors, such as sautéed, grilled, poached or sweetened. These natural ingredients can be chosen to boost specific flavor profiles in soups for a traditional recipe or another flavor twist.

From a soup manufacturer’s point of view, concentrates and extracts offer a product that is easy to source and is consistent in quality and price all year. Soup products can be easily standardized for color, flavor and nutritional properties with these all-natural ingredients. All-natural processing methods for drying and concentrating are used, providing an opportunity for clean labeling. Mehaignerie adds, “One available vegetable-based ingredient can be used for up to a 25% sodium reduction in soups, due to its flavor-boosting properties.”

Grains and Nutrient Content Claims
Formulating soups with grains can help provide a hearty, satiating texture. The choice of grains can be used to customize the viscosity and clarity of the soup matrix. Grain ingredients that are particularly appropriate for use in liquid soup products are pasta and intact whole grains. Intact whole grains that can be used in soup include barley, brown rice, wild rice and wheat, including common, spelt and durum wheat types. Pasta is a vehicle that is commonly used to deliver grains in soup and is especially well-suited for delivering multigrain blends. For dry soup products, cut or flaked grains may also be used in order to achieve cook-time targets.

For example, explains Arndt, “51% whole six-grain pasta can be made with a 15% whole-grain flour blend of amaranth, quinoa, millet, sorghum and teff, along with 36% white whole-wheat flour and 49% durum-wheat semolina. This combination delivers the nutritional benefits of 51% whole grain, the exotic appeal of ancient grains and quality similar to traditional durum-wheat semolina pasta.”

Several of these grains are naturally gluten-free and can be used in soups, including brown rice, sorghum, amaranth, quinoa, millet, teff and wild rice. Product development opportunities in gluten-free soups abound.

Grains can help product developers achieve nutrient content or health claims in soups. Arndt’s company offers a special barley version containing 30% total dietary fiber. Some 40% of this fiber is beta-glucan-soluble fiber. Using this ingredient can deliver enough total fiber to qualify as a good source and more than enough beta-glucan to qualify for the FDA-approved heart-health claim, 21CFR 101.81, for soluble fiber from barley or oats. Whole grains also contribute B vitamins, iron, magnesium, selenium, manganese and other nutrients.

In formulating soup products with grain ingredients (intact whole, cut, flaked or in pasta), it is important to consider the degree of water absorption and swelling of the grain or pasta. This and the amount of starch and soluble fiber that leaches from the grain are two considerations affecting the texture of the grain or whole-grain pasta, as well as the taste and appearance of the soup. “These two factors must be predictable and reproducible in order to achieve and maintain the desired appearance and texture of the grains or pasta throughout the product’s shelflife,” advises Arndt.

Process cheeses and cheese powders can give soup a specific dairy flavor and/or creamy mouthfeel. Specific cheese flavors, such as American, blue, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Parmesan and Swiss can be used to customize products. Cheese-based products also boost calcium levels in soup. Now available are calcium-enhanced versions of cheese-based products that can contain 4,000-5,000mg calcium per 100g of cheese base. If significant enough amounts of calcium-enhanced cheese base are used in a formulation, wet and dry systems may be able to achieve a “good source” claim. Other trends in cheese bases are no trans fat and reduced sodium.

“One consideration with a cheese-based soup is, if the soup is to be held on a steam table, a cheese powder should be amylase-free, in order to maintain consistent thickness. In a dry soup packet, made at home, amylase is not an issue,” adds Vicki Brewer, principal scientist for a supplier of cheese-based ingredients used in soups. Amylase is the enzyme that breaks down starch chains, causing thinning of a thicker soup, when held at steam table temperatures.

Starches for Viscosity
In addition to pasta, beans, vegetables and meats, other functional ingredients can be critical to quality in soups. Starches are beneficial as thickeners in soup, with a variety of functions available for specific needs. For example, modified tapioca starch is primarily used as a thickener, but also provides storage stability in refrigerated or frozen soups. It offers the benefit of a clean flavor profile that will not impact the flavor of the soup. Corn, tapioca and rice starches or flours are used in gluten-free soups. Starches are not only used in cream soups for thickening, but also in some vegetable and noodle soups. Starches can provide suspension properties and act as filling aids to ensure that even amounts of vegetables or noodles are placed into each container.

Choosing a starch for a soup depends on the desired finished product characteristics (body, mouthfeel) after processing and storage, and handling by the consumer. “Ideally, the starch will be chemically modified to withstand all aspects of manufacturing and be specifically suited for fresh, frozen and canned applications,” adds Shinsato.

“Ingredient selection will be influenced by the target market. Natural and organic soups will not use modified starches, so clean-label ingredients are needed. The same is true for gluten-free, depending on the manufacturer and the market. Some accept ‘modified’ for functionality and palatability, while others desire a clean label that is consumer friendly,” he adds. Gluten-free consumers are critical label readers because of their particular needs. For non-gluten-free soups, manufacturers are focused on finished product quality, while using the most functional, cost-effective ingredients.

Soup offers a convenient, tasty means to a healthier diet. For example, Campbell’s offers a “Soup for Life” program on its website-a 1,200 calorie per day diet that allows the dieter to eat familiar, satisfying food, including a bowl of soup each day, to promote satiety and lower caloric intake. A bowl of soup offers a great deal of prospects to manufacturers and consumers alike. pf