Finally there is a chill in the air, at least in New York City. I don't know about you, but when the temperature starts lowering, my appetite for soup starts rising. Problem is, I can never find the time to make soup from scratch.
• Sodium: Probably the scariest number on a can of soup is the sodium content. I found this to range from a beautiful 50 milligrams all the way to a whopping 940 milligrams for a one-cup serving. The latter is around 40 percent of one's sodium needs, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended daily value of 2400 milligrams. Trust me, that is a soup you want to pass on.
Don't be fooled by labels including "organic," "light" or even "healthy," because that doesn't seem to affect the manufacturer's amount of salt. However, I did find that those labeled "light in sodium," "low sodium" or "no added salt" were on the lower end of the sodium range (50 to 160 milligrams) and were acceptable amounts.
• Fat: When it comes to soups, this nutrient doesn't seem to make much of a difference and wouldn't really affect my choice. Luckily, none of the soups I saw had trans fats because that would have been a total deterrent for purchase. Total fat ranged from 0 to 9 grams and saturated fat from 0 to 5 grams, and this includes the "creamy" soups.
• Fiber: Since the average American does not meet his or her daily fiber needs, I am always on the lookout for foods that shine in this nutrient. The higher the fiber, the more likely I would buy a brand – as long as the sodium is not out of control. The range I found was 0 to 8grams, the latter coming from soups that are bean-based such as lentil and black bean.
• Protein: The amount of protein ranged from 1 to 9grams. If you are enjoying the soup as part of your meal – for example, with a sandwich – than 1 gram is OK. But if you're having soup as your sole snack or lunch, then the more, the better. Protein helps to fill us up and, if it's lacking in your bowl, then you may be hungry sooner than later.
• Calories: The key here is to look first at serving size and the number of servings in the can or box. Most cans include two servings, and most of the boxes contain four. Calories ranged from as low as 15 per serving for a broth to 220 per serving for a lentil soup.
Just like with the protein, the choice depends on when you are having the soup and whether you're having something else with it. If it's your main meal, you could easily have 2 cups of the 220-calorie brand; however, if you're also having a sandwich, you would do better to choose a soup with around 100 calories per serving. Overall, soup can actually help to fill you up if enjoyed as an "appetizer," but if it contains too many calories, it may just fill you out.
• Ingredients: As with almost everything that comes in a can or a box, you should read the ingredient label very closely. For me, if I see MSG, artificial flavoring or caramel on the label, the soup stays on the shelf because I really don't see the point of them being included in the recipe.
Surprisingly, many vegetable soups have egg ingredients and wheat when I would expect just to see veggies. While "100% natural" may lead you to think a soup is healthy, there is no set definition by the FDA for this labeling, and you might be surprised what you find on the ingredient list. As per my dear friend, Bonnie Taub-Dix, fellow registered dietitian and blogger for Eat + Run: "Read It Before You Eat It." Very wise words.
Ideally, we probably should be making our own soups. My other close pal and registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner promised me that the below recipe from her book, "The Flexitarian Diet" is so simple it can be made in less than 15 minutes with minimal ingredients. Hmmm? This might actually be less time than I spend scouring the aisle for the perfect soup.
Tuscan Bean Soup (Makes 2 cups)
• 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 1/2 sweet yellow onion, diced
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed rosemary
• 1 cup canned garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
• 1/2 cup canned no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained
• 1 cup water
• 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (topping)
In medium pot, sauté onion, garlic and rosemary in oil for three minutes. Add beans, tomatoes and water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Put hand blender into pot, and blend soup to a semi-chunky texture. Serve with drizzled vinegar on top.
Nutrition info (serving size = 1 cup): 170 calories, 4.5 fat (0.5 grams saturated), 0 milligrams cholesterol, 220 milligrams sodium, 31 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 10 grams sugar, 8 grams protein
[Read: 6 Ways to Make Time for Your Health.]
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Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, is a registered dietitian/nutritionist, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.