A bowl full of opportunity

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Sodium chloride Monosodium glutamate Starch

Consumers want less sugar, less fat, less salt, and a clean label to boot, which means MSG, hydrolysed vegetable protein and modified starch are off the menu for soup makers, says Elaine Watson

Forget pomegranates, flax and cod liver oil, soup is the new superfood (excuse the pun). Or at least it could be, if manufacturers, caterers and retailers got their act together, says development chef Celia Wright.

"I don't think the industry has even begun to grasp the potential of soup. Apart from anything else, it can be pretty lucrative. Margins might be tight in retail, but if you're supplying restaurants, there's a substantial mark-up." As for schools: "If they have 50p to spend on a meal, why not spend it on soup? It's a meal in itself."

At least one firm that has got the message is Pret a Manger, which is now offering more substantial soups such as chicken curry, Italian meatball, mushroom risotto and sausage hotpot, adds Robert Kedzlie, who founded the NPD Direct product development business. "Meal replacement is all the rage now. I'm seeing a growing trend for recipe dish driven soups with more carbs and proteins, a hand-made feel and lots of particulates."

While chilled manufacturers can do chunky, however, adding large pieces of meat or veg to canned soup can raise technical challenges, says Dan Partington, a former technical manager at Campbell. "If your soup's been blasted in a retort for an hour and a half, you don't get nice big chunks of crunchy veg. Likewise, if you want thick lumps of meat, you've got to cook it for even longer and ensure a minimum percentage per can, which means you can't just shove it through a piston filler. You might have to do it in a couple of phases and agitate the can, and all of these things add cost."

A more pressing priority for soup manufacturers in the last 18 months, however, says Partington, has been reducing fat, sugar and salt without using monosodium glutamate (MSG), modified starch and hydrolysed vegetable protein. "All the tools that the soup maker used to use to boost flavour are now on the retailers' banned list," he says.

"Of course you can use vinegars, chillies, spices and peppers to add flavour instead, but when you're on a very tight budget, your options are more limited." You also have to bring the consumer with you, says Unilever UK Foods, which relaunched its Knorr dry bowl soups in January with 12% less salt. "There comes a point where the enhancement of overall flavour intensity provided by salt cannot be achieved using other ingredients," says a spokesman. "Some products are now reaching a baseline level, which is approaching the limit of consumer acceptability."

As a result, many soup manufacturers are turning towards salt replacers. One such is Synergy's SaltMate, made from lactic yeast extract and potassium sodium chloride. "Soup is a big market for us," says Synergy's senior commercial manager for savoury ingredients Geoff Allen. "People have been using potassium chloride to replace salt but it can leave a metallic taste in soups, especially leek and potato. SaltMate doesn't."

When it comes to consumer acceptability, Heinz insists that its multi-million pound reformulation exercise to cut salt in its soups by 20% and sugar by 6% in late 2004 was a "huge success". If 2005 sales figures suggest otherwise, this was probably due to price cutting


Total soup​ £405.8m 3.8%

Wet ambient​ £246.1m 3.5%

Instant​ (eg. Cup'soup) £73.8m -0.2%

Fresh​ (chilled) £72.4m 13.9%

Packet​ £13.5m -14.1%

Frozen​ £0.043m -65%

Source: TNS Worldpanel year to January 1, 2006

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