Soup is the ultimate comfort category. Datassential’s FLAVOR insights research shows that four out of five consumers like or love it. Moreover, soup is also well-suited to consumers staying in when the weather shifts cooler—as Datassential’s COVID Recovery FLAVOR data show that three out of four   consumers prefer to eat it at home. 

For trend-forward inspiration, food formulators should consider MenuTrends INFINITE, Datassential’s restaurant data that helps inform innovation. In this case, it can help formulators move beyond same-old soup products.

For example, data suggest restaurant menus can showcase new regional and global takes on chicken soup. This will give consumers new ways to enjoy an old favorite. As plant-based options continue to take off, soup provides both easy and innovative ways to incorporate more vegetables and meat alternatives. Last but not least, spicy flavors and toppings are hot on menus and this adds flavor and interest to bowls.

Chicken Soup 2.0

For comfort food like chicken soup, Southern cuisine is a natural source of innovation. Hearty Southern soups and stews that feature chicken expand menu possibilities while maintaining “down-home” flavors. 

On soup menus, chicken pot pie soup has exploded on menus, more than tripling menu penetration during the last four years. Chicken gumbo also has grown by 25% in the last four years, with restaurants featuring ingredients like blackened or braised chicken, smoked sausage (for chicken and sausage gumbo), and the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking: onions, celery, and green pepper. Also growing on soup menus is Brunswick stew (up 22%), a tomato-based stew that historically includes game meat. More recently, it is showing up on restaurant menus featuring chicken (or sometimes pork).

Taking inspiration from even farther south, a chicken-based Mexican soup combines the appeal of soup with consumer love of Mexican food (82% like or love this cuisine). Although pozole is traditionally a pork-centric soup, this trending soup (up 18%) is increasingly spotlighting chicken, like in El Pollo Loco’s seasonal limited time offer of Chicken Pozole Verde. El Pollo Loco re-released this soup this past fall, with ingredients including fire-grilled chicken, hominy, tomatillo, cilantro, garlic, onion, serrano chile, and Anaheim chile.

Looking more closely at chicken soup, itself, Asian trends emerge through growing flavors and ingredients. Coconut milk (up 126%), galangal (up 107%), scallion (up 108%), lemongrass (up 59%), and lime (up 50%) are all increasingly paired with the term “chicken soup,” showing up on menus as tom yum chicken soup (a Thai hot and sour soup), tom kha chicken soup (similar to tom yum but with coconut milk), or as Thai chicken soup.

Naturally Plant-Based

Soup is a natural application for the plant-based trend. According to Datassential FLAVOR insights, more than half of consumers love vegetable, potato, tomato, and broccoli cheddar soups, which already are plant based. Some of today’s fast-growing soups are plant-based as well. Butternut squash soup (up 30% during the past four years), mushroom soup (up 17%), and tomato basil (up 15%) are all trending and plant forward.

Other trending soups can become vegetarian or vegan with a few ingredient swaps. This winter, Sunbasket Meal Kits offered a vegetarian take on pozole with their Pinto Bean and Hominy Pozole Rojo with Queso Fresco kit for two. 

Similarly, tom yum (up 14%) typically includes shrimp, though many restaurants offer a choice of protein (meat, seafood, or tofu), and this provides more options for consumers seeking plant-based dishes. Ramen (up 49%) and pho (a Vietnamese noodle soup, up 20%) are highly customizable varieties, where noodles and broth co-mingle with varying proteins, vegetables, and herbs. Trending vegetable broths, like mushroom broth (up 39%), help enable plant-forward ramen and pho builds. Packaged ramen brand Immi takes advantage of plant-based trends by offering varieties like Black Garlic “Chicken,” Spicy “Beef,” or Tom Yum “Shrimp” - all vegan noodle and broth combinations with recommendations for toppings to add at home.

Fiery Flavor

Spicy flavors are hot on menus, and the soup category is no exception. Trending ramen boosts the growth of chili oil, with mentions up 155% compared to four years ago. Across soups, peppers—such as jalapeno (up 30%), red chile (up 28%), and green chile (up 23%)—are all growing on menus.

Interestingly, these trends also translate readily to consumer packaged goods. Think of chili oil packets in instant ramen cups, like with Snapdragon brand’s Spicy Tonkotsu Ramen Cup. Other options could include crunchy toppings, like French’s branded Crispy Jalapenos toppers for tacos, pizza, and more (with the potential to add texture to soup).

The term “smoked” has grown 10% on soup menus. Meanwhile, specific smoked proteins are trending slightly higher—such as smoked pork and smoked chicken (both up 17%), and smoked sausage (up 13%). These all boost the flavor of gumbo, stews, and chili. On soup menus, “smoked” also can apply to bacon, salmon, cheese, paprika, and even tomato broth.