What is it about a steaming bowl of soup that soothes the soul? Is it soup’s bone-thawing qualities? Its ability to conjure memories of comfort with each spoonful? Nothing compares to Grandma’s beloved minestrone, but the new crop of natural soup offerings comes pretty close. Make no mistake, however, these aren’t the condensed, tinny icons of Andy Warhol’s day.
With fears of BPA-lined cans still clouding consumer consciousness, soup manufacturers have realized that it’s time to kick the can for good. In 2012 conventional soup stalwart Campbell’s wooed fickle younger consumers by launching a line of microwaveable “Go” soups packaged in pouches. Though Stephen Colbert promptly lambasted the product as blatant millennial pandering (a big no-no), Campbell’s packaging—“it’s like Capri soup!” says Colbert—is now widespread among soup manufacturers. Since then, Campbell’s has updated offerings to stoke soup sales including a move into natural. The company plans to release a line of organic, carton-packed soups next year. Organic, it seems, is now a part of the conventional soup game.
But true soup evolution has already been occurring in the natural channel. The 2006-founded Boulder Soup Works, for instance, exemplifies the hottest trend in the ready-to-eat category with fresh refrigerated products that are entirely USDA Organic and Certified Gluten-Free. Ample vegan and vegetarian options and ethnic flavor profiles including Red Lentil Dahl and Soy Ginger with Shiitake also widen the line’s appeal. “Consumers are increasing their understanding of the food chain and as a result they are placing renewed emphasis on fresh and healthy foods,” explains Boulder Soup Works CEO Greg Powers. “Refrigerated soup sales continue to benefit from shopper migration from center store to the perimeter as consumers seek out fresh and ready-to-eat options for themselves and their families.”
Perhaps this quest for unparalleled freshness and convenience is why “heat and eat” soup drives category revenue. In the 52 weeks ending June 15, sales of ready-to-eat soup garnered $37.6 million in natural retail, according to SPINS.
While ready-to-eat soup sales occupy more than 45 percent of the natural soup market, packaged broth constitutes the fastest-growing segment. SPINS data show that in the 52 weeks ending June 15, broth sales fetched $23.2 million—a 9 percent growth rate from the same time period in 2013; bouillon, the dried flavor enhancer, did even better with a 10.5 percent sales increase. As a comparison, ready-to-eat soup experienced sluggish 3 percent growth during the same period.
Why is broth feverishly growing while packaged soup is relatively stagnant?
Some believe that broth’s success can be attributed to more people getting in the kitchen. A recent USDA report announced that Americans are consuming a statistically significant 127 fewer calories outside the home. “Now more than ever it’s just so expensive to be eating out at a restaurant every night,” explains Sharon Paguio, category group manager for Imagine brand soups. Plus, thanks to the proliferation of cooking channels and foodie websites, people are inspired to make restaurant-quality dishes at home, she adds. Packaged products like broth, boullion and Imagine’s new culinary simmer sauces (sold in easy-to-open pouches, of course) allow cooking enthusiasts to make something practically from scratch, but with fewer ingredients to buy and prep.
And we can’t talk about soup without talking about flavors. Brands are attracting both adventurous eaters and wanderlust millennials by offering globally crafted soups containing enlivened ingredients such as coconut milk, chili, lemongrass and ginger. Worldly flavor boosters including cumin, paprika, agave and jalapeno are also manifesting in soups ranging from thin broth to chunky chili.
Click here for a tour of this season's best soup offerings.