On a cold night, a steaming bowl of soup can really hit the spot. Plus, soup is relatively cheap, healthy and easy to prepare.
So it's no surprise that it's the top ready-to-serve dish ladled up at dinnertime. The only problem may be deciding which soup to buy.
The folks at Consumer Reports scoured grocery store shelves to find the best-tasting soups available. Associate editor Mandy Walker, visits The Saturday Early Show to share the results.
To prepare for this test, trained tasters spent weeks trying homemade soups and soups from top restaurants so they would be able to identify what makes a good soup. While "secret shoppers" from all over the United States visited grocery stores, purchased soups off the shelves, and sent them to the Consumer Reports office.
The final collection of 31 soups represented the variety of available types: ready-to-serve, condensed, dry and frozen. Soups were sampled in three of the top-selling flavors: vegetable/minestrone, chicken noodle and New England clam chowder.
Tasters were looking for soups with the best flavor and texture. They tried each of these 31 products three different times before determining their ratings.
Canned, dried and jarred soups varied widely in quality. In general, frozen soups were "a bit more consistent," says the magazine. Frozen soups can taste fresher than other varieties because they require minimal heat treatment before freezing and packaging.
Canned and jarred soups, on the other hand, require a lot of heat to process. This tends to soften veggies, causing them to lose their flavor and color. The dehydration process often results in tough meat. So, overall, frozen soups seemed to be a good bet.
Here are the winners in this category, along with comments from tasters.
- Very Good: Birds Eye Hearty Spoonfuls Homestyle (frozen, comes as one serving in a bowl) - Thickened broth with big pieces of vegetables and chicken; egg noodles. Distinct flavors, but very salty.
- Very Good: Wyler's Soup Starter Homestyle Chicken Flavor Mix (dehydrated) - Mild, chicken-flavored broth, chicken-fat fullness but no chicken pieces. Decent-tasting dehydrated vegetables.
- Fair: The Spice Hunter (dehydrated) - Mostly noodles; some spongy, chickenlike bits in chalky, boullion-flavored broth; cheesy off-flavors. Very salty; very slight heat.
Tasters discovered big differences within brands. For instance, a Campbell's soup earned the only "excellent" rating, but some other Campbell's soups rated much lower.
Here are the top winners in this category:
- Excellent: Campbell's Soup at Hand Blended Vegetable Medley - Good enough for guests. Tastes freshly prepared with full, complex flavors (mostly fresh roasted red bell pepper) and the thick texture of a puree.
- Very Good: Birds Eye Hearty Spoonfuls Italian Minestrone (frozen) - A one-dish meal. Hearty; big, firm vegetable pieces and Italian cheese in tomato-flavored broth.
- Very Good: Taste Adventure Minestrone (dehydrated) - A bean lover's delight. Hearty; with brown spices (like cinnamon and nutmeg) and slight heat. Less salty than most.
- Very Good: Tabatchnick Vegetable (frozen) - Hearty tomato-vegetable soup with flavorful vegetables and slight heat.
- Good: Campbell's Simply Home Country Vegetable (ready-to-serve glass jar) - Thickened tomato base, unremarkable vegetables; dehydrated spices and herbs. Slightly sweet.
Note: While the Campbell's Soup at Hand received an "excellent" rating, it's also more expensive than the basic can of soup because it comes as a single serving. Several of the other soups tested were also single serving, which makes them more expensive as well. For instance, the Soup at Hand costs $1.43 per serving, the Campbell's Simply Home cost .88 per serving.
New England Clam Chowder
Unfortunately for clam chowder lovers, testers only found one highly rated soup in this category.
- Very Good: Campbell's Chunky (ready-to-serve can) - Full, well-balanced clam and dairy flavors, but could be a bit fresher tasting.
The other health concern most people have with prepared soups is their high sodium content. However, soup doesn't have to be loaded with salt to taste good - Consumer Reports found two highly-rated soups that were low in sodium.
Consumers concerned about the nutritional values of their soups should know a few things about soup labels.
Consumer Reports explains: "Soups labeled 'low fat,' for example, contain 3 grams of fat or less per serving, but they aren't necessarily lower in fat than other soups.
"Knorr TasteBreaks chicken noodle is labeled 'low fat' and has 2 grams per serving, but most of its competitors have even less fat - they just don't boast about it. Healthful-sounding Progresso 99% Fat Free Chicken Noodle has a mere half-gram less fat per serving than regular Progresso Chicken Noodle.
"To use the word 'healthy,' a food must meet several requirements, including limits on sodium and fat. Since most soups are already low in fat, the label often simply helps you identify soups that are lower in sodium than others."
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