Growth has been elusive in packaged soups in recent years, but 2013 saw soup makers willing to embrace unconventional approaches to jump-start sales.

Turning a single-cup coffee maker into a soup maker would qualify as unconventional, as Campbell Soup and Keurig teamed up with Campbell’s Fresh-Brewed Soup K-Cup Packs.  Said to offer the “taste and experience” of Campbell’s soup in a “convenient snack that can be prepared at the touch of a button in Keurig brewers,” these packs will retail in the coffee aisle -- alongside other K-Cup products -- not in the soup aisle.

The product works by using a broth K-Cup pack that is “brewed” over the contents of a packet of dry pasta and vegetables -- to create a “satisfying snack” in minutes.  Announced in 2013, the entry hits the market in 2014, in flavors like Homestyle Chicken Broth & Noodle, with the hope that Campbell can cash in on snacking opportunities, thanks to the proliferation of Keurig brewing machines in the home and workplace.

The key word here is “snacking,” as packaged soup makers have largely missed the party in consumer snacking, relative to many other packaged foods.  And, despite what consumers say about wanting to lose weight, snacking has become a way of life.  According to the Information Resources, Inc., the percentage of U.S. consumers that report snacking three to four times a day has grown from 24% of consumers in 2009 to 43% in 2012.  Campbell Soup is banking on K-Cups being its ticket to this party, as an “anytime” offering, though time will tell how it turns out.


Grains and Greens

Another key theme that may set up the soup category for a prosperous 2014 is the category’s growing embrace of healthful vegetables (like kale) and so-called “supergrains.”  Kale is a nutritional powerhouse, with more vitamin C than an orange; more vitamin A than any other leafy green; and large amounts of calcium, to boot. Sales of fresh kale have nearly tripled over the last two years, according to Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Vernon, Calif.-based Melissa’s/World Variety Produce. 

That turbocharged sales performance is helping kale move into soup, as it did in 2013 with a pair of launches.  Tualatin, Ore.-based Pacific Foods of Oregon added Spicy Black Bean & Kale Soup to its organic soup line, while Minneapolis, Minn.-based General Mills offered a Creamy Potato with Sausage & Kale variety as part of its Progresso Artisan Soup packaged in paperboard Tetra Paks. Benefitting from the premiumization trend, the latter company saw the market share for its Progresso ready-to-serve soup brand rise over half a share point in 2013, to 38.5%.

The proliferation of leafy green vegetables in soups may enable packaged soups to tap the “cleanse” trend, where vegetable drinks are often used as detox regimens to rid the body of toxins. This is already happening in foodservice, where Philadelphia, Pa.-based Real Food Works offers a one-day “soup cleanse program” featuring six, nutrient-packed soups to be consumed from breakfast through dinner and beyond.

Quinoa is another healthful ingredient that is rising to prominence, with international sales of Peruvian quinoa up more than 40% for the first five months of 2013 vs. the same period in 2012, says the Exporters Association of Peru.  This “supergrain” is protein rich, has nearly twice the fiber of most other grains and is naturally gluten-free. Indeed, gluten-free has become an increasingly trendy claim for soup, with over one fifth of 2013’s new soups claiming to be free of gluten, per Datamonitor’s Product Launch Analytics.

Quinoa’s popularity is reflected in Melville, N.Y.-based Hain Celestial Group’s Potato Quinoa & Spinach soup, which was added to its Imagine Natural Creations organic soup line in 2013.  Also jumping on the quinoa bandwagon was Eagle, Idaho-based Nature’s Earthly Choice’s Easy Quinoa Soup Mix in a Quinoa Lentil flavor with 6g of protein per serving.


The Whole Package

These introductions collectively show new ways for packaged soup makers to develop the premium segment of the market. Campbell Soup has been pushing in this direction the past few years with its Go! brand pouch-packaged soups: Slow Kettle offerings and restaurant-inspired Gourmet Bisques packaged in “fresh-sealed” boxes.

Box and pouch packaging could open up the premium sector. Staten Island, N.Y.-based Original SoupMan Soup rolled out its soups in Tetra Pak boxes in 2013, as the brand moved out of the freezer case.  The BPA-free boxes are said to be much better at maintaining flavor quality than metal cans, for a soup line claimed to use nearly four times the ingredients of typical mass-market soups.

BPA-free, non-phthalate, #5 propylene plastic tubs are the pack of choice for Boulder, Colo.-based Boulder Soup Works’ line of chilled soups.  Handmade with hand-cut vegetables, fragrant herbs and custom bases, these soups come in flavors like Butternut Squash with Sage and Green Chili Corn Chowder, all naturally gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian.  Vegan and vegetarian claims are on the rise in the soup section, with each appearing on just over 8% of new product launches, per Product Launch Analytics.

Pouches also are getting more play, with StoreHouse Foods Pouch 2 Plate Soup from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.-based StoreHouse Foods intended to be eaten right out of the pouch.  StoreHouse promotes Pouch 2 Plate as a way to “never miss a meal on an airplane again,” since it easily fits into a carry-on bag and can be reconstituted with hot water provided by a flight attendant.


Flavor Focus: Asian, Hispanic

Flavor inspirations for 2013 soup introductions ran the gamut, from sports bar and pub fare to exotic ethnic cuisine. The former inspired the Hearty Cheeseburger, Spicy Quicken Quesadilla and Philly-Style Cheesesteak flavors added to Campbell’s Chunky soup line. All take aim at men with hearty appetites. Vietnamese cuisine is on the rise, with San Francisco, Calif.-based Star Anise Foods’ new Happy Pho Vietnamese Brown Rice Noodle Soup on trend, with flavors like Zesty Ginger and Shiitake Mushroom.

Campbell Soup led the charge toward consumers seeking Asian and Hispanic flavors with Swanson Flavor Infused Broths in varieties like Thai Ginger, Mexican Tortilla and Chinese Hot & Sour.  Broths were a bright spot for Campbell in 2013, and the company believes cooking soups will energize 2014, when it launches its first line of Hispanic-inspired cooking soups.

With more than 50 million Hispanics in the U.S. representing over $1 trillion in buying power, the target is simply too big to ignore. But, prior efforts aimed at Hispanic consumers have fallen short and were perceived by some as patronizing. Part of the problem is that “Hispanic” is a broad brush, and no one flavor can encompass true Hispanic cuisine. But, this offers opportunity to soup makers who dig deeper and highlight truly regional, Hispanic cuisine.


Dish Out the Potatoes

Side dish innovation in 2013 focused on potato-based dishes and hotter, spicier flavors.  Neither was able to lift the overall innovation, as product launches fell in 2013, but growth prospects going forward remain robust.  According to Datamonitor’s Market Data Analytics, sales of “dried ready meals,” a category that includes side dishes, are expected to grow at just over an 8% compound average growth rate from 2012 to 2017.

Potatoes seem to be capitalizing on their reputation as a comfort food, especially one that is gluten-free. Potatoes increasingly are finding a place at the plate, as the “2013 U.S. Potato Board Attitudes and Usage Study” found 76% of respondents said they had served potatoes at home during the last seven days, a share that has risen steadily since 2008.

New options for 2013 included Kraft Velveeta Cheesy Potatoes in Hash Browns and Southwestern Diced varieties. The line is an extension of the pasta-based Velveeta Cheesy Skillets dinner kit brand that has turned into a monster hit, with two-year revenue of between $170-180 million, says Nielsen. Cheesy Potatoes features 100% real potatoes and real Cheddar cheese and is ready to serve in about 20 minutes.

Unilever’s Knorr also extended its footprint into potatoes in 2013. Knorr Potato Sides Potatoes & Gravy Mix debuted in dual section pouches, one containing mashed potato mix and the other containing gravy mix. Offered in flavors like Mashed Potatoes with Beef Flavored Gravy, the line is plate-ready in just five minutes.

Flavored potato side dishes, especially restaurant-inspired dishes, were popular in 2013.  Idahoan Premium Steakhouse Potatoes from Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Idahoan Foods offer “restaurant quality,” in flavors like Cheesy Hashbrown and Parmesan & Herb Red Potatoes. Idahoan also introduced Microwaveable Flavored Mashed Potatoes in an Applewood Smoked Bacon flavor, enabling one to enjoy bacon “anytime, anywhere.”

Other premiumization strategies included upgraded “mix-in” ingredients for potato side dishes.  Minneapolis, Minn.-based General Mills says a Cheddar sauce pouch helped put the “ultimate” in Betty Crocker Ultimate Potatoes, a 2013 side dish entry made with real potatoes and sold in flavors like Loaded Mashed and Cheddar Mashed.

A logical progression for potato-based side dishes may be packaged products based on specialty potatoes, something that is not all that common right now. Sales of specialty potatoes are rising rapidly; during the past four years, specialty potatoes have enjoyed volume growth of 63%, according to Perishables Group FreshFacts and Nielsen.


Pasta Promotions

Pasta-based side dishes focused on convenience packaging and new flavors. For packaging, “to-go” convenience and single-serve sizes ruled the day. Kraft added Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Singles in flavors like Chicken Alfredo and Ultimate Cheeseburger Mac, each ready-to-go in just 60 seconds for a quick snack or lunch option.

Even top natural and organic brands focused on convenience in 2013. Berkeley, Calif.-based Annie’s Homegrown was out with Microwaveable Mac & Cheese Singles, a gluten-free product made with rice pasta.  Tualatin, Ore.-based Pacific Foods had two new ready-to-eat pastas: All Natural Pasta O’s and All Natural Mac & Cheese -- both in BPA-free Tetra Recart cartons said to “help retain a fresh, homemade flavor.”

Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods went the microwaveable, stand-up pouch route with Marie Callender’s Easy Sides Pasta in flavors such as Alfredo. Plate-ready in just four minutes, the product heats in its own pouch after water is added, and there are no pots or pans to clean or ingredients to gather.  Brooke Draper, brand director for Easy Sides, notes that side dishes are often overlooked, and “it’s not until we are setting the table that we realize we don’t have a side dish to accompany our main course.”

Other major pasta side dishes came from Pepperidge Farm and Kraft. The former promoted its popular Goldfish cracker brand into side dishes with Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Mac & Cheese, featuring goldfish-shaped pasta pieces. Kraft went hot and spicy with Easy Cheesy Buffalo and Three Cheese Jalapeno extensions to its Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner.


Ethnic Rice Dishes

Not to be left out, rice side dishes went more ethnic directions in 2013. That’s not a surprise, given consumption statistics that find that 13% of Hispanics’ afternoon meals include rice, compared to just one percent for non-Hispanics, according to NPD Group’s “National Eating Trends Hispanic” study.

Reaching out to Hispanic consumers was Minute Ready to Serve! Black Beans & Rice from Houston, Tex.-based Rivana Foods.  For a better flavor experience, the rice and beans here are in separate cups that are combined after heating. Uncle Ben’s Rice & Sauce from Rancho Dominguez, Calif.-based Mars Food US hit shelves in a Santa Fe variety featuring two cups -- one with rice and one with sauce -- for fresher flavor.

Hispanic-inspired fare was not the only ethnic highlight for rice in 2013.  Chicago-based Jaali Bean Inc. offered a Lentil & Rice Kit under the Jaali Bean a Taste of India brand in “mild” flavors like Creamy Coconut and Mildly Spiced.  This “Indian comfort food” is gluten free, vegetarian and all-natural.

And though it is not a side dish in the tradition of pasta, rice or potatoes, Nestle’s Lean Cuisine Salad Additions was one of 2013’s most creative “side dish” concepts. The frozen product includes chicken, vegetables, dressings and crunchy toppings, to which a one adds their own lettuce for a quick salad.  The entry leverages “fresh” in a way that most conventional side dishes do not, and that matters to consumers. Datamonitor’s “2013 Global Consumer Survey” found that 82% of female respondents agreed that a product represented as “fresh” is considered to be “more nutritious.”