Childhood Memories: What’s Really in That Bowl of Soup?

Children of the 1950s have a collective memory of the perfect comfort food: hot tomato soup and a gooey grilled cheese sandwich – a food treat that originated somewhere in those long-ago days when Campbell’s Soup and Wonderbread were in every pantry. And Kraft American Singles in every refrigerator.

On a cold and rainy day, mothers across the country today have many more options than those did so many decades ago. We take a close look at a full range of soups – from canned condensed to boxed to frozen to fresh homemade – to determine what exactly is in our soup. Is it as wholesome as we think (hope)?

What’s In My Soup?

Soup Array
(Click on this image to get a larger view.)

Canned soup, boxed soup, soup produced in huge quantities in industrial conditions is by nature a “processed food.” And nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.), flavor, and aroma are destroyed by processing – the grinding, mashing, blending, and cooking. To replace what’s lost artificial flavors, colors, aromas, thickeners, texturizers, and preservatives – and man-made vitamins – are all added back in attempt to give processed food the taste and appearance of fresh food. Compare any canned or boxed soup to fresh soup or soup made in small quantities and frozen, and you’ll immediately see the difference.

Today food “manufacturers” have about 5000 additives they can add to their products, most of which have never been fully tested and many of which are “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) by the FDA based on information provided to the agency only by the manufacturers. Here are just a few of the more common additives we found on the labels of the soups we selected:

  • Calcium chloride – salt of calcium and chlorine. Common applications include brine for refrigeration plants, ice and dust control on roads, desiccation, and as a food additive.
  • Citric acid – a weak acid. It is a natural preservative and is also used to add an acidic or sour taste to foods and drinks.
  • Sodium citrate – sodium salts of citric acid. It is used as an acidity regulator in drinks and also as an emulsifier for oils when making cheese.
  • Maltodextrin – a polysaccharide that is produced from starch by partial hydrolysis. Maltodextrin is easily digestible, being absorbed as rapidly as glucose, and is commonly used for the production of sodas and candy. It can also be found as an ingredient in a variety of other processed foods.
  • Cultured dextrose is prepared by the fermentation of milk or sugar powders by the bacteria Propionibacterium freudenreichii and Lactococcus lactis, both of which are extensively used in the production of cheese and other dairy products. It is a food additive used to inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria and mold in food.
  • Potassium chloride – a metal halide salt composed of potassium and chlorine. Potassium chloride was historically known as “muriate of potash.” The majority of the potassium chloride produced is used for making fertilizer. It is also used in medicine, lethal injections, scientific applications, food processing, and as a sodium-free substitute for table salt.
  • Monopotassium phosphate – a soluble salt of potassium and dihydrogen phosphate. Commonly used a fertilizer, a food additive and a fungicide.
  • Gum arabic – a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree. Used primarily in the food industry as a stabilizer. Gum arabic is also a key ingredient in traditional lithography and is used in printing, paint production, glue, cosmetics and various industrial applications, including viscosity control in inks and in textile industries.
  • Disodium phosphate – an inorganic compound that is used to adjust pH in foods. Its presence prevents coagulation in the preparation of condensed milk. Similarly, it is used as an anti-caking additive in powdered products and in desserts and puddings to quicken cook time and for thickening. It is also found in some detergents and cleaning agents.

(Thanks to Wikipedia for these definitions and descriptions.)

Our Recommendations

For our comparison we selected a total of 14 soups: 9 in cans, 3 in boxes, 1 sold in tubs from supermarket refrigerated cases, and 1 sold frozen at local farmers markets. We examined the ingredients in each one using a very simple measure – could you make this soup at home with the ingredients listed on the label? Then we categorized the products into three groups: 1 – Very Good, 2 – Pretty Good, 3 – Not So Good. Soup made with organic ingredients generally ranked higher than soup made with conventional ingredients and the inclusion of additives lowered the rank.

Very Good: Got Soup? (frozen, sold at local farmers markets), Amy’s Organic Soups (canned), Imagine (boxed), and Wolfgang Puck (canned) soups. None of these soups contained any ingredients that could not be found in the average home kitchen (though “evaporated cane sugar juice” seems like the long way to say “unprocessed cane sugar”).

Our top choice: Smoked Tomato Bisque from Got Soup?, a very small operation here in Seattle that buys ingredients from local farmers markets and sells soups at those same markets. The soups are made in small quantities, just like you would at home, and are frozen in quart containers. The chef, Jerry Baxter, informed us that he adds no salt to almost all of his soups, preferring to let his customers salt to taste.

Pretty Good: Safeway’s O Organic Tomato Basil Soup and Pacific Creamy Tomato Soup are acceptable choices; both are made with organic ingredients, and contain minimal additives. Pacific’s soup listed two liquids – reduced fat milk and filtered water – as the top ingredients by weight before listing tomato paste; the O Organic soup lists tomatoes and tomato pulp before the water. Heinz, a brand comparable to Campbell’s in name recognition, is an acceptable alternative because the soup contains few additives, however no organic ingredients are included. Heinz also uses vegetable oils that are likely to be corn or soy oil and modified cornflour.

Not So Good: The remaining soups – even those made with organic ingredients – contain a number of additives or “enrichments” and we consider them heavily processed. Two brands in this category warrant additional comment:

Muir Glen, once a highly respected organic label, was acquired by Cascadian Farm in 1998, and Cascadian Farm was bought by Kellogg in 1999. Muir Glen Tomato Basil soup  contains multiple additives (some of which are organic) – butter flavor, citric acid, calcium chloride, gum arabic, ascorbic acid – that push it into the “heavily processed” category in our opinion.

Earth’s Best Tomato Soup with Elmo Pasta, is made almost entirely with organic ingredients and no additives other than fortification with a vitamin/mineral blend – a blend that adds the illusion of “better for you.” Where do all those vitamins and minerals come from? Chemical firms, most often in China…

Chinese firms account for roughly half of all global vitamin production… though for some specific varieties it’s much higher than that. Half a dozen Chines companies, for instance, are making 90 percent of the vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, that goes into food both as a vitamin and a preservative. (Pandora’s Lunchbox, Melanie Warner, Scribner 2013, p. 81)

Your Choice

It’s your choice – you can rely on heavily processed, chemical-laden soups that are inexpensive because they are heavily processed, fortified, and enhanced with man-made additives; you can choose a product that is minimally processed with few additives; or you can make your own. However you make your selection, read the labels, know what’s in the can or box, and make informed choices for your family.

Making your own soup doesn’t need to be overwhelmingly time consuming – soup doesn’t have to be complicated – and you always know exactly what the ingredients are. Choose the freshest vegetables available (preferably organic) direct from the grower if possible, make quantities large enough to freeze a second batch, and share the experience with family and friends. Enjoy and create your own tradition of comfort food.

Ready to start cooking? Try this recipe: Tomato Dill Soup.

Brand Ingredients You Might Use Not Usually in the Home Kitchen
1 Got Soup
Smoked Tomato Bisque
(Made of fresh, local, and organic ingredients – sold frozen)
Vegetable stock, tomatoes, onions, celery, parsnips, parsley, tarragon, basil, rosemary, smoked paprika, no salt added. None
1 Amy’s Organic Soups
Cream of Tomato, Organic
Tomato puree*, filtered water, cream*, cane sugar*, onions*, sea salt, cracked black pepper*. None – though I’m not sure why the added sugar…
1 Imagine
Creamy Tomato Basil Soup, Organic
Filtered water, soymilk* (filtered water, soybeans*), onions*, celery*, tomato paste*, rice syrup*, rice flour*, basil*, garlic*, sea salt, canola oil*/safflower oil*/sunflower oil*, spices*. None – though I’m not sure why the added sugar…
1 Wolfgang Puck
Tomato Soup, Organic
Water, diced tomatoes* in tomato juice*, cream*, tomato paste*, evaporated cane sugar juice*, tapioca starch*, spice*, white rice flour* sea salt. None – though I’m not sure why the added sugar…
2 Safeway O Organics
Tomato Basil Soup, Organic
Tomatoes*, tomato pulp*, filtered water, tomato paste*, cream*, cane sugar*, cornstarch*, sea salt, onion powder*, basil*, spices*. Calcium chloride, citric acid, natural flavor*.
2 Pacific
Creamy Tomato Soup, Organic
Reduced fat milk*, filtered water, tomato paste*, cane sugar*, sea salt, rice flour*, garlic powder*, onion powder* Sodium citrate, cheese flavor*
2 Heinz
Cream of Tomato With a Hint of Basil
Tomatoes, water, vegetable oil, sugar, salt, dried skimmed milk, cream, basil, herbs. Modified cornflour, milk proteins, herb extracts, spice extracts, citric acid.
3 Earth’s Best
Elmo Tomato Soup, Organic
Water, tomato puree*, Elmo pasta* (semolina*, egg whites*), tomato paste*, tapioca starch*, evaporated cane juice*, sea salt, canola oil*, dehydrated onions and garlic*, basil*. Vitamin and mineral blend: thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid, cyanocobalamin, reduced iron, zinc oxide; citric acid.
3 Harry’s Fresh Foods
Creamy Tomato Basil Soup, Organic
Milk*, water, vine-ripened diced tomatoes in juice*, tomato paste*, cream*, canola oil*, wheat flour*, evaporated cane sugar*, cornstarch*, basil*, garlic*, Tamari soy sauce*, spices*. The vegetable base that is used is made up of a variety of fresh and concentrated vegetables and “maltodextrin*, natural flavor*, potato starch*, and yeast extract.”Other ingredients: Cultured dextrose* and citric acid.
3 Campbell’s Soup
Tomato Soup
Tomato puree (water, tomato paste), wheat flour, water, salt, sea salt. High fructose corn syrup, potassium chloride, flavoring, citric acid, ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), monopotassium phosphate.
3 Muir Glen
Tomato Basil, Organic
Tomato puree (water, tomato paste)*, water, tomatoes*, raw sugar*, sea salt, corn starch*, wheat starch*, extra virgin olive oil*, parsley flakes*, garlic powder*, black pepper*, onion powder*. Butter flavor*, citric acid, calcium chloride, gum arabic*, basil extract*, ascorbic acid, extract of rosemary* (preservative).
3 Progresso
Tomato Basil Soup
Tomato puree (water, tomato paste), water sugar, bleached wheat flour, soybean oil, salt, garlic powder, dried parsley, basil. Corn syrup solids, modified food starch, potassium chloride, citric acid, ascorbic acid, natural flavor, soy lecithin.
3 Rokeach
Tomato Soup
Water, tomato paste, sugar, salt, onions, garlic, celery Potato starch, cottonseed oil, disodium phosphate, pepper extractives.
3 Safeway
Safeway Kitchens Tomato Soup
Tomato puree (water, tomato paste), wheat flour, water, salt High fructose corn syrup, potassium chloride, citric acid, ascorbic acid, natural flavor.
*Organically grown and processed *Organically grown and processed

Read More

Pandora’s Lunchbox by Melanie Warner (Scribner, 2013)
Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss (Random House, 2013)
What to Eat by Marion Nestle (North Point Press, 2007)
Real Food: What to Eat and Why by Nina Planck (Bloomsbury, 2006)
Spoiled by Nicols Fox (Basic Books – Harper Collins, 1997)

Photo credit – Soup and Sandwiches: Lakenvelder (used with permission under Creative Commons license)