Getting Canned: Is Canned Soup Really that Bad for You?

Although we’re slowly edging into spring, there’s still enough cold days left on the calendar that are sure to find you reaching for a can of soup. I mean honestly, could a meal be any easier? Simply pop open a can, throw it in the microwave (or a saucepan if you’re feeling particularly culinary) and then sit back, relax and enjoy that bowl of dying vegetables and meat juice smothered in salt and preservatives. Wait? What? Yeah, you heard us…that canned soup you’re digging into? Probably not so good.

And here’s why…

Let’s start with the most obvious here: the salt content. The average cup of soup (and lets be honest here, who actually measures out one cup and, more to the point, is satisfied by one cup?) packs in a whopping 1,000 milligrams of salt. Need to put it into perspective? Current dietary guidelines recommend consuming no more than 2,400 milligrams for the entire day (and actually recommend that you keep it to between 500 and 600 milligrams). But what’s the harm in salt? Well, beyond the obvious fluid retention (and believe us, a couple of pounds of fluid retention is not going to feel great), salt directly impacts blood pressure and has also been linked to osteoporosis, asthma, kidney disease and stomach cancer. Furthermore, a recent study from researchers at St. George’s University of London in England suggested that reducing children’s salt intake could help decrease childhood obesity because children would reduce their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

But that’s not even the worst of it. Most soups contain artificial preservatives such as MSG (Monosodium glutamate), a flavor enhancer that is added to food to accentuate its “meatiness.” Beyond the ick factor associated with jazzing up meat, MSG, when in its purest form, is thought to act as a potent neurotoxin that can cause damage to the cells of the nervous system. Although the FDA has previously classified MSG as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) substance, reports of reactions to MSG – a condition characterized by headaches, tightness in the chest, nausea, rapid heartbeat, drowsiness and several other symptoms – have led them in recent years to issue tougher label requirements for foods that contain MSG. The debate over MSG is long and varied, and has been covered by us in the past.

The good news is, however, that there are some relatively healthy soups on the market, particularly those that are natural, organic brands (although you should still read the label!). Some good soups that are worth a shot include ShariAnn’s Organics and Healthy Valley’s Organic soup lines (just watch the carbs on some of these as they can skew high!).

But let’s not overlook the benefits of making your own soup. Although sometimes a little time consuming (despite being relatively hands off!), making a pot of soup can put that left over pot-roast to work or salvage the vegetables at the bottom of the crisper! In addition, making your own soup at home (particularly if you use your own stock recipes) can allow you to control the salt content and eliminate altogether the need for preservatives!

The following are a few quick (and healthy) soup recipes:

Easy Chicken Stock:
We offer this one up simply because knowing how to make a good stock can be half the battle when making soup from scratch!

4 to 5.5 pounds of chicken pieces (backs, necks, wings, legs, thighs), or one whole roasting chicken
16 cups cold water (or enough to cover chicken pieces)
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 stalk of celery, coarsely chopped

Put chicken and water in a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes. Add remaining ingredients. Simmer, uncovered, for roughly 3 hours, adding water as needed to keep ingredients submerged. Strain into a clean pot or heatproof plastic container. Refrigerate until ready to use. Makes about 12 cups.

Creamy Mexican Avocado soup with Chicken:
Bored of the ol’ tried and true soup recipes? Spice this up with this Mexican-twist on hearty chicken soup!

2 medium-sized chicken breasts, poached or grilled
3 ripe avocados
Juice of one lime
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (extra credit if you use the above recipe!)
1/4 tsp hot chili flakes
Salt and pepper to taste

Peel and pit avocados. Place all ingredients (excluding the chicken), in blender and blend till smooth. Pour into pan and heat until just bubbling. Chop chicken breasts into bite-size pieces and add to soup. Allow to simmer for 15-30 minutes. Serve either as is, or top with shredded cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds. Makes about 4 hearty servings.

Seinfeld’s Crab Bisque:
The Soup Nazi probably wouldn’t object to this healthy spin on his famed crab bisque!

4 pounds snow crab clusters (legs)
16 cups water
1 small onion, chopped
1 1/2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, quartered
2 small turnips, peeled, chopped
1/4 cup fresh chopped Italian parsley
2 tsp mustard seed
1 tbsp chopped pimento
1/2 tsp coarse ground pepper
2 bay leaves
1/3 cup sugar-free tomato sauce
2 tbsp half and half
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 tsp thyme
1/8 tsp basil
1/8 tsp marjoram

Remove all the crab meat from the shells and set it aside. Put half of the shells into a large pot with 4 quarts of water over high heat. Add onion, 1 stalk of chopped celery, and garlic and bring to boil. Continue to boil for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Strain and keep only the stock. Measure 12 cups of the stock into a large sauce pan or cooking pot (top up with water if you don’t have enough!). Add turnips and bring to a boil. Add ½ of the crab and remaining ingredients and bring back to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 4 hours uncovered until it reduces by about half and begins to visibly thicken. Add the remaining crab, simmer for another hour until the soup becomes very thick.

Martin Deutsch Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Eat This Today, Feel Better Tomorrow

Choose Your Own Salad Adventure

Healthy Party Appetizers

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47 thoughts on “Getting Canned: Is Canned Soup Really that Bad for You?”

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  1. salt directly impacts blood pressure

    I’d just like to point out that just as many Apple readers believe in literature that debunks the lipid hypothesis, there’s a camp that says there is minimal effect on blood pressure from salt. There’s two sides to many stories!

    Dave Gets Fit

  2. Hooray for homemade soup. The stuff out of the can tastes terrible in comparison. Preservatives, salt and MSG just aren’t a substitute for healthful, fresh ingredients

    You don’t even need whole chicken pieces or meat pieces to make stock. I make stock out of the bones/carcass virtually every time i cook chicken or (bone-in) meat, partly as a way to avoid being wasteful and use meat to its fullest extent, and partly because it’s delicious. I just throw the bones in a pot with water, some savory vegetables or vegetable scraps, and some herbs, and cook it on low for a long time. Keep the stock in the freezer, and you can make homeade soup in as little as 10-15 minutes any time.

  3. You’re right, Dave C. In fact, we plan on covering the salt/blood pressure debate in a soon-to-come post. You sure are on top of things! 😉 Thanks for the comments!

  4. Anyone have a good vegetarian recipe?

    Also, you could make chicken stock like fine ding places: leftover chicken feet.

    I’m not very keen on the impact of salt on the diet other than a general “it’s bad” message I’ve always got. Definitely would like to read more on that.

  5. Gary Taubes wrote great article on the soft science behind the salt theory.

    I think a better way to phrase this question is, “Is canned soup good enough?”.

    It drives me nuts to see souped advertised in restaurants as “homemade”, but when I ask about the broth, I find out that they use a commercial soup base, not real broth. There is a world of difference.

    Souplantation was one of the most memorable offenders of this (I was out of town in a place that only had corporate dining establishments and Souplantation was the best dining option available at the time). The manager assured me the soup was all “made from scratch” using their corporate recipe, which he brought out to show me. Sure enough, it listed a manufactured soup base concentrate, not anything resembling a “from scratch broth” even though all the other ingredients were fresh. The guy didn’t even understand that broth can be made from scratch and I think he was a little grossed out and confused when I mentioned cooking meaty bones for hour. Sad, considering he works in the restaurant/food business..

    1. My favorite is searching for a recipe for a specific type of soup and finding that every single recipe calls for a CAN OF SOUP! How is “soup” an ingredient in SOUP?!?! That’s not a recipe.

      Thankfully, soup is one of the most forgiving fake-it-til-you-make-it kinds of food. As long as you start with good stock (which is even easier than good soup) you almost can’t mess it up. I like to use my immersion blender for most soups so my kids won’t ask me about any suspect ingredients. They always like it if they don’t know what it is!

  6. Josh,

    You can make great vegetarian stocks out of carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, herbs, and other vegetables or scraps cooked for a long time. One trick for enhancing stock (or soup) flavor if you’re not vegan: save rinds from parmesan cheese in the freezer and cook them into your stock/soup. Fish them out before you actually eat it.

    Miso is also vegetarian and makes a great, simple stock, although I’ve never made it from scratch.

  7. Nothing comes close to a real good homemade healthy soup. I like to make mine with V-8, Seasoned with sea salt and red pepper.

  8. I hate being lactose-intolerant, but am definitely the newest and biggest fan of MDA!

  9. No wonder!

    Everytime I eat out, it’s usually a buffet… like chinese…

    My heart would always start to beat really fast and I’d kind of have trouble breathing.

    Although this happens when I eat too much at once, it is FAR more pronounced when I eat OUT.

    Thanks, MSG. (Ew)

  10. I keep a “stock bag” in the freezer to which I add my vegetable scraps. Carrot peels, radish tops, onion skins (but not the brown part- it’s bitter), asparagus ends. They accumulate until I use them for stock.

    You can do the same thing for bones, feet, fish heads/tails, organs etc. Break open bones before making stock to get all that good marrow.

    1. Wait, onion scraps but not the brown part… There is that papery stuff that collects in the drawer and the stuff that I cook with.

      I prefer to boil my bones until they are so soft that the cats don’t want them.

  11. There is an older little book called
    “In Bad Taste, The MSG Syndrome” by George Schwartz MD
    It was the second book I read on health/nutrition years ago. The first was “The Sugar Blues” (can’t remember the author, but maybe it was Gloria Swanson)
    Anywho, the book was kind of pushed under the rug, but years ago there was some serious research done on MSG. “Big Foodie” made a point of poo-pooing the research. The book also has some cool historic facts about how MSG came into existence.

    Anna, soupplantation….I ate lunch yetserday at a salad/soup place called Crispers. $7 for a bowl of acid washed lettuce and a bucket of crappy dressing. They did not have olive oil available…only their “signature dressings”
    I repeat $7. Do you know how much fresh produce you can buy for that?
    Ok, rant over now 😉

    Create a great day!

  12. will the avocado soup work without the heavy cream? I have a son with several food allergies, dairy being one. I don’t know if it is worth screwing up 3 avocados (I think they are pretty expensive here~~we are in Italy) to find out it wasn’t good w/out the cream!

    1. yes–I am lactose intolerant and I made a similar soup recipie (this one was a salmon chowder) with coconut milk instead. It will work, but the texture just becomes a lot lighter.

  13. Try coconut milk instead of cream in soups. It will work with avocado soup, and is an important ingredient in Thai-style soups (I make these all the time with chicken or fish for very fast easy meals). Coconut milk does commonly come in a can, but it is possible to find it without preservatives and gums (thickeners). Most grocery stores carry it in the “ethnic” or “international” aisle but better selections are sometime found in Asian neighborhood markets.

  14. I’ve been an MDA lurker for awhile, never posted, have received much good info here.
    I’m a non-cooking single male, not about to make soup from scratch and have only recently been made aware of a chemical in canned food cans called bisphenol-A. Unbelievably, this is an extremely toxic, gene-damaging compound at remarkably low dosages. Google it, read about it, be aware. Probably too late for most of us, but expectant moms–be warned.

  15. ront,

    You bring up a very good point about the anti-corrosive linings in canned foods (usually a white coating).

    BPA isn’t just a problem for expectant moms – it is a powerful exogenous endocrine disrupter (estrogen-like compounds that block our natural estrogens from binding with estrogen receptors). That isn’t good news for anyone: girls, women, boys and men. There is all kinds of evidence that it is messing with male reproduction function in wetlands animals (alligators, frogs & more), too. I can’t remember the specific problem is, but my vet said there even is a documented, but not well understood connection with canned cat food and male cats.

    May I gently suggest it is time to make soup? It is “souper easy” with a Crock Pot. It’s a great way to increase your “appeal” if you aren’t looking to stay single all your life. 😉

  16. R.I.P. Here lies little ronnie–he couldn’t get laid in a women’s penitentiary–shoulda’ been making soup from scratch.

    Love your kind words Anna.

    I only singled out expectant moms because they may be the only ones who can start early enough to keep their children BPA free.
    From what little I’ve gleaned on the subject, some study of 400 americans found BPA in 95%. Concentrations of just a few parts per billion were enough to cause genetic rearrangement, hence it’s probably too late for most of us on this board to benefit by any limitation of canned foods.
    Quite the piss’r to live healthy and then succumb to some disease because the government allows one of the most toxic chemicals known to man to be liberally put into our food supply.

  17. There is a low sodium version of Campbell’s Chunky soup that is also low calorie. You can eat as much as you want and still be under 2000 cals per day. Add some cardio and weight falls off. This canned soup has proven to be the quickest, healthy meal that has resulted in losing 20 pounds in 6 weeks. Making your own soup takes too much time.

  18. “Making your own soup takes too much time.”

    Only if one thinks it does.

    I find soup to be one of the most time efficient ways of cooking, with a big nutrition payoff for minimal effort and without the additives in commercial soup products.

    I guess is it a matter of priorities, though I really think the sense of convenience with ready-to-eat foods is a false savings of time.

  19. One more thing about the time cost/effort/convenience.

    Food manufacturers and marketers work overtime trying to get us to think that home prepared foods are too laborious and not worth the effort. They also work overtime to make us think that we “deserve a break today” and our time is better spend on other things (other “consuming” activities).

    There is an omnipresent message that diminishes the value of preparing one’s own food, that insists prepared foods can be equal to or greater for health than real food, and that the perceived time and effort savings is somehow liberating for more valuable pursuits.

    It’s hard to resist that message; the lure of instant gratification and re-ordered priorities often wins out. We internalize the marketer’s messages to the point that we can no longer assess what is truly worth the time and effort.

    Soup is an excellent example. Soup broth is little more than some meaty bones, perhaps with vegetables, cooked for a long time with little attention and hardly any prep work (I have some simmering right now, as I do every week, with several quarts to show for about 5 minutes’ total effort, perhaps 10 at most). I keep a container in the freezer for collecting bones for broth making (I also keep a container for soup veggies – onion ends, leek tops, extra chopped carrots and celery when I am preparing something else, misc. trimmings, etc.). Simmering broth can be left alone for long periods of time while doing something else, especially with a slow cooker device (very cheap, especially second hand).

    From homemade broth, the sky is the limit on effort and time from minimal to maximum soup varieties. Soup with homemade broth can take just minutes if time is short or it can be more elaborate. Frequent preparation also helps to shave time.

    A good handheld blender (also called a stick blender) is a quick, very easy way to reduce effort and increase options when soup making. Blending is great for adding ample greens to the diet, without eating a never-ending pile of raw or cooked greens, especially for kids or people with chewing/dental difficulties

    Soup making is an especially thrifty way to cook, with the cheapest of bones and meat cuts, as well as a great way to use extra, scrap, or less appealing blemished veggies.

    So does homemade soup take too much time to make? Only if one has been convinced it is too time consuming and not worthy of effort. Or convinced that canned soup is equivalent.

  20. Great post Anna!
    My chicken soup took 10 minutes on Sunday and simmered for 3-4 hours. No work but the 10 minutes prep time. I like your tip on keeping the scraps. I will start doing that, as I used almost all my brand new celery for the soup.
    Oh, if you want to see a pic of the soup, it’s on my blog.


  21. I often make a 20 min soup.
    Lightly saute onion.
    Add whatever combination of veggies you have in the fridge, some herbs, fresh ginger and more or less 5 cups of water. Simmer for 20 min.
    Blend with a hand blender and Voila.

  22. Question – If I were to use a boullion cube or two in my homemade stock, would it be as unhealthy as using a premade, canned stock?

  23. Nice, I’ll be trying these out. And 1g of salt is nothing, some have like 2.5g. Imagine that… 2 days worth of salt intake in one single can of soup. Ridiculous.

    Oh and soup Nazi’s sh*t is awesome.

  24. I have never entertained canned soup in my entire life! that’s a no-no!!! homemade soup still the best to be served for the entire family.

  25. what a fantastic place to visit! thanks for all the tip and hints.
    I try to make stock in advance to have on hand in the freezer .. sometimes I am stuck without and not much time to put dinner together either. Having allergies to all those nasty preservatives I am always searching for ‘little helpers’ .. thats how I found this site! For those who need or just want some healthy helpers too, I found there are websites that sell soupmixes that are preserve free – just add water! Hope this helps someone else too .. Lori

  26. Made the Avocado soup 2 days ago… Brilliant! Making the crab bisque now. Toughest part is waiting for it to cook!

  27. Made Chicken soup the other night with home made broth that was lurking in the freezer. Heated the stock up to a boil and threw in chicken, carrots, celery, apple, and heavy cream for a muligatawny stew took about 40 minutes and everyone loved it. Stock in the freezer can make for a fast and delicious meal. And I only used one pot.

  28. The ingredients for homemade soup should be kept in any modern kitchen.

    I have been eating a lot of canned soup recently because I wasn’t sure how to make it.


  29. My daughter is actually allergic to the metal cans. She eats canned soup and gets a rash in her mouth and it makes her stomach hurt. We spent several years trying to figure this one out. We can everything now. It takes some getting used to. But well worth it.

  30. Watch Food, Inc the movie. Even home made soup is contaminated by today’s FDA standards. The people that worked for the major meat packers are now the FDA administrators. Produce is not safe either. Washington, DC is completely contaminated.

  31. I’ve been hoarding the flavor packets from ramen. (Yes I am still on the SAD.) Lately, I’ve been wanting to drink soy sauce and having those little packets has tempered my temptation to resistible levels. (As in I still want to drink soy sauce straight from the jug, but I can settle for a bit of cheese instead.)

  32. I have looked through all the comments and may have missed it, but in my research in making a primal/paleo bone broth/soup, 1-2 tbsp’s of apple cider vinegar is added in the beginning to draw the minerals out of the bones. Is this not a good thing to do after all? I’ve also seen a cut up lemon used for the acid. What say any of you? My bag of bones are calling….