The Secrets in the Soup

Who hasn’t dipped their grilled cheese into a piping hot mug of tomato soup, happily torpedoed their clam chowder with oyster crackers, or savored the thick gooey cheese stretched over a bowl of French onion soup? Whether it’s chicken noodle, split pea or some concoction loaded with vegetables, pasta, and grains, we love our soups. There’s little more satisfying on a bitterly cold day then warming your fingers while sipping from a mugful of your favorite broth.

Even when the weather warms, soups work. But delicious, nostalgic, and pleasing don’t automatically translate into healthy and nutritious–you should be aware of the dangers of excess salt, preservatives, and additives, especially when preparing canned soups or eating out of the home.

Since March is National Nutrition Month, it bears taking a closer look at this popular and diverse staple. And while it’s difficult to imagine that soup isn’t good for us, there’s typically one prime ingredient hiding in soup that is a major contributor to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke: salt. More than 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from salt added to processed foods. We often don’t even know we’re eating it.

Sodium is a major flavor additive and preservative in canned soups, and in homemade or restaurant soups that use canned or pre-packaged chicken, beef or vegetable stocks as a base. With so much salt in our food, it’s no wonder the average American gets more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams.

Manufacturers use salt to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but very little is needed in the diet – it’s estimated that the body needs less than 500 mg of sodium a day to perform its functions, an amount much lower than what the average American consumes.

In an ideal world we’d all handpick fresh ingredients and cook them at home, ensuring a limited sodium, fat and preservative intake. In the real world, however, we don’t always have time to cook. So how can we ensure that we’re consuming soup and other “healthy” products that are truly good for us? The answer lies in knowledge and smart shopping.

Nutritious and Delicious

Food additives help process or prepare soups and foods, keep the product fresh, or make it more appealing. This includes emulsifiers that prevent liquid products from separating, stabilizers and thickeners that provide an even texture, and anticaking agents that allow substances to flow freely. They also prevent fruits and vegetables from turning brown when they are exposed to air. Finally, they provide color, and enhance the taste.

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists how much sodium is in each serving, and other content. As a guideline, to include a “sodium free or salt free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving. A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving. A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.” Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium.

Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. You can learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and find foods that are currently certified by visiting

It’s important to learn about the different products we’re putting in our bodies, and to make smart choices that help us achieve a balance between convenience, cost and content. Making soup and other foods from scratch or knowing how it’s prepared by others is your best option. Ask questions when you’re purchasing meals from restaurants and take-out merchants, and read the food labels on prepared products you purchase at the grocery store. That allows you to make a more informed choice and consider product alternatives. Nobody says you can’t have your soup – it’s just healthier to know what’s in it, and how to find healthy compromises.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!