The Clean Plates Guide to Healthy Store-Bought Soup
Published on January 6, 2022
By Samantha Schwab
We are in the height of soup season, and we are here for it. Of course, it’s almost always healthier to make your own soups, but given our schedules, sometimes we all need to reach for a store-bought option. And on cold, rainy days, it feels like anything but a warm bowl of soup would be sacrilegious.
But how can we tell which soups are the best on the shelf? We tapped our network of nutritionists to get their insight on what ingredients to consider when shopping for premade soups and how to super-quickly doctor them into a delicious, nutrient-packed meal.
Here’s what to consider when shopping for canned soup:
1. Low sugar
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: sugar is hiding everywhere, even in our unassuming canned soups. While not all prepared soups have added sugar, tomato soup is usually the biggest culprit because tomatoes are naturally high in sugar. That iconic tomato soup in Andy Warhol’s famous painting? It packs 30g of sugar inside it. That’s more than a Butterfinger candy bar. The moral here? Check your labels.
2. Lower sodium
It’s no secret that high quantities of sodium are often hiding in soup cans. In fact, everyone’s favorite chicken noodle soup growing up actually has 1,000mg of sodium in just one can — that’s nearly half of the American Heart Association’s daily recommendation of 2,300mg of sodium per day.
When choosing a soup, consider what else you’ll be eating with it, says culinary nutritionist Kristy Del Coro. “For example, if you plan on eating more than one serving of soup or having it with crackers or a sandwich, then it would be wise to opt for a lower-sodium soup since there will also be sodium from the bread and possibly sandwich fillings,” Del Coro says.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to turn over every can of soup. Like the back of the can, the front is also informative. Look for labels with “light in sodium,” “reduced sodium,” “low sodium,” “very low sodium,” or “sodium-free,” all of which have at least 50% less sodium than a regular can or only 5mg of sodium per serving.
Also consider the potassium-to-sodium ratio. According to culinary nutritionist Kristy Del Coro, MS, RDN, LDN, potassium helps counteract the negative effects of sodium on blood pressure, and we should be getting about 4,700mg of potassium a day. So soups in which the potassium is greater than the sodium are good — or toss a potassium-rich ingredient in your soup, like lentils, potatoes, or button mushrooms.
3. Good-quality fats
If you read our guide on fat, then you probably know that not all fats are created equal. When it comes to fat content in prepared soups, Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN recommends steering clear of soup with vegetable oil, palm oil, and partially hydrogenated oils because they are highly refined and can contain trans fats.
While there are a number of prepared soups that don’t have any oil at all, if you do choose one with fat, Del Coro recommends staying below 4g (under than 20% of the daily recommended max intake) of saturated fat per serving.
4. Avoid refined grains
Chicken noodle soup may be a classic, but chicken and wild rice soup, for instance, is considerably better for you. This is because the noodles — while undeniably tasty — are made with refined, enriched flour. This ingredient isn’t just higher in calories, it’s high in simple carbs and low in fiber, which means it’s ultimately less filling and can lead to overeating. A diet full of refined grains has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, among many other issues, including higher blood pressure and insulin resistance.
5. Opt for organic ingredients wherever possible
As always, organic ingredients are generally going to be a better bet than conventionally-grown ingredients. If your budget allows for it, prioritize soups that are mostly made with organic vegetables since they will likely have more nutrients and be free of any chemicals or pesticides.
Nutritionist-approved hacks for making canned soup healthier
How can you turn a can of soup into a nutrient-packed meal? Del Coro and Cording share their favorite, easy ways to transform boxed soup into a healthy, more satisfying meal.
-Add canned beans
Del Coro says that one of the easiest ways to add a big nutritional boost to broth-based soups is to simply rinse a can of beans and toss them into your soup. The beans will add complex carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals. You can even use an immersion blender to create a smooth texture — the beans will add a natural creaminess. You can also blend just half the beans for a mixed-texture soup.
-Throw in some plant-based protein
In addition to beans, Cording likes to add lentils or a few tablespoons of hemp hearts to vegetable-based soups that are lower in protein. She also recommends swapping out croutons for crispy chickpeas to boost the soup’s protein content even more (and remove refined grains). As a general guideline, Cording recommends having 15 to 30g of protein per meal, so if your can of soup is below that minimum, consider one of Cording’s protein-boosting hacks.
-Incorporate leafy greens
It’s always a good idea to keep leafy greens on hand, whether in the fridge or freezer. Del Coro likes to add a handful or two of chopped, fresh baby spinach or any other dark leafy green after the soup is reheated. The greens will quickly wilt, so they don’t require any real additional cooking and deliver a great package of nutrients, including fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin K, folate, calcium, potassium, iron, and more. If you’re using frozen spinach, you can just grab a hunk of it and toss it in without bothering to defrost — it doesn’t matter if the spinach gets a little water-logged, after all.
Clean Plates-approved prepared soups
Next time you’re walking down the grocery store soup aisle (or shopping online for healthy meal choices), keep your eyes peeled for our favorite soups. They’re all lower in sugar, have a better sodium-to-potassium ratio, and are low in saturated fats, plus free of refined grains.
The CP Favorite: Amy’s Organic Lentil Soup, Light in Sodium
This lentil soup is our favorite because it not only tastes delicious, it’s well-rounded. It’s made with organic ingredients, is packed with protein and fiber, and has much less sugar, sodium, and trans fats compared to most other soups.
The Best Chicken Soup: Egunsi Foods Lemongrass Chicken Soup
Ok, so you have to go online to get this one, but this Nigerian Lemongrass Chicken Pepper Soup is so phenomenally tasty and well-balanced, in addition to being great for you — it’s well worth ordering. This soup is super high in protein and low in sugar (with zero added sugar), and is gluten-free.
The Best Creamy Soup: Pacific Oat Milk Cumin Carrot
Our favorite creamy-textured soup doesn’t even have any dairy. Despite being vegan, it has a luscious texture and is packed full of flavor. However, it only has 3g of protein per serving, so we love adding a can of black beans, or a handful of crispy baked chickpeas on top, too.
The Best Miso Soup: Kettle & Fire’s Miso Bone Broth Soup
Kettle & Fire’s Miso Bone Broth soup made our list for its beautifully rich flavor and serious protein power. Made with organic ingredients, including chicken and seaweed powder, this is a great paleo-friendly, keto-friendly option. Just be mindful that it does have a higher sodium count, so as you plan your meals for the day, consider having a low-sodium breakfast if you’re going to have this for lunch or dinner.
The Best Tomato Soup: Pacific Organic Creamy Tomato Soup
We’ve accepted the fact that tomato soup is simply going to have a lot of sugar. Tomatoes naturally have a high sugar content, which drives up the total sugar count. Pacific’s organic creamy tomato soup does have 14g of sugar, but to be fair, only 4g of that are from added sugar. Sugar aside, we like that it’s made with organic ingredients and has higher potassium and protein.
The Best Vegetable Soup: Tabatchnick Low-Sodium Vegetable Soup
At only 60g of sodium per serving, Tabatchnick’s low-sodium vegetable soup is a great option for those who are on a low-sodium diet. We like to add ½ cup of chickpeas for extra protein to bulk up this soup.
The Best Mushroom Soup: Imagine Creamy Portobello Mushroom Soup
This creamy mushroom soup is divine in both taste and nutrition. It has zero saturated fats, only 1g of sugar, and is relatively low in sodium. The only downside is that this mushroom soup doesn’t have a ton of protein, so it’s not the best meal on its own. You can always add some shredded rotisserie chicken or a can of beans to bulk it up a bit.