Soup is starting to lose its dated image as the starter to have when nothing else on the menu grabs you. It's now seen as a convenient snack food and as a nutritious light meal option, so offering a choice of flavours has become increasingly important. And what flavours there are!
When it comes to soup, as in other areas of food, the British consumer is no longer satisfied with standard fare and is demanding flavour combinations that genuinely excite the palate. "Consumers and caterers are becoming more adventurous in terms of flavour," confirms Alice Hannan, consumer innovation manager at UBF Foodsolutions. "They are demanding totally new flavours and twists on the classic favourites."
Hannan points to recipes from the Knorr 100% range to illustrate the trend, including a carrot and coriander that she describes as having a peppery note, giving it "a nice warm build-up". The range includes a roasted red pepper and tomato soup, and a vegetable soup with Thai-style spices and bamboo shoots.
"Offering choice throughout the day is becoming important, as consumers make soup a regular part of their lives," Hannan says. "Soup has become a regular lunchtime choice for an increasing number of people, and the 24-hour snacking culture has helped soup sales."
Offering a twist on classic recipes is the basis of the range of frozen soups from Macphie of Glenbervie. Its creamy mushroom recipe is flavoured with garlic and thyme, while its take on carrot and coriander includes a hint of ginger. And taking flavours to a more exotic level are new recipes influenced by more global flavours. Recent additions to the range include Thai-spiced parsnip, Moroccan chicken and Mediterranean tomato and basil.
Frozen soups from Loxton Foods also reflect the demand for more unusual flavour combinations. Varieties planned for Christmas 2003 include parsnip and ginger, mushroom and tarragon, and celery and Stilton. "Demand is high for traditional flavours such as derivatives of tomato, mushroom and vegetable," managing director Paul Durbin says. "However, a major opportunity exists for more innovative combinations."
As consumers and chefs become more demanding in terms not only of flavour but of quality, producers of instant soup mixes have had to reappraise their products.
"With food manufacturers trying to bring instant soups as close as possible to the non-dehydrated products, caterers have seen dramatic improvements in quality," says Corrina Fogg, category product manager for Maggi. "We have just improved our range of Traditional Soups. Our chicken soup has more chicken than before, while our vegetable soups all contain more than double the amount of vegetables compared to previous recipes."
While flavours of instant soups generally lean towards the traditional, Fogg believes that caterers themselves are becoming more adventurous in the way they use the products. Popular adaptations include the addition of shallow-fried lemon zest to a tomato soup mix, and livening up a spring vegetable soup mix with lemon juice and zest.
"Chicken and tomato soups remain firm favourites," Fogg says, "but other varieties are becoming more popular."
The increase in demand for soup and the need to offer a broader choice of recipes has obvious implications in terms of storage. Consequently, chilled soups have failed to make the same impact on the catering industry as in the retail market. Fogg reckons the fact that chilled soups are so much more expensive than dehydrated products points them towards restaurants and more upmarket hotels, whose chefs may prefer to make their own soups anyway.
It's the home-made feel that Primal Soup aims to capture with its range of fresh soups, with varieties such as spicy tomato and red pepper, and Tuscan bean and roast sausages, heavily influenced by the Mediterranean. An increasing number of recipes are based on ingredients from around the world, including the additions of watercress and truffle oil, pumpkin and coconut, and the very English Beef Pot Pie.
Manufacturers predict that future flavour trends will head towards the Mediterranean, with specialist companies such as Primal Soup helping to steer them in this direction. Even mainstream players such as UBF Foodsolutions predict that the Italian influence will carry over into soups in a major way. "This would mean we'd see a lot more roasted flavours and vegetables, such as aubergines and courgettes, being used more frequently," Hannan says. "Lentils, beans and fish could also become increasingly used in soup, as more consumers turn into real foodies."
0800 389 8389
The London Soup Company 020 7735 1212
Loxton Foods 0161-474 1444
Macphie 01569 740641
Nestlé (Maggi soups) 020 8686 3333
New Covent Garden 0113 248 0606
Primal Soup 020 8965 1881
Real Soup Company 01434 602503
0800 328 4246
Sauce Company 01724 272900
Don't completely break from tradition
All the talk of new flavours shouldn't deter chefs from offering some traditional favourites. Research shows that traditional soup flavours remain the favourite choices of those eating out.
The most popular soup as a starter is tomato, with 19% choosing this, closely followed by vegetable (18%), and then chicken (13%). Minestrone, mushroom, asparagus, French onion, oxtail and spicy/ethnic make up the remainder.
Source: Autumn 2002 market data by TNS
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) published guidelines on salt intake for children and adults on 15 May 2003, following a report by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition on the link between salt and health.
Now, though, the FSA is in talks with food producers, with the aim of reducing salt levels in processed foods, including soups and sauces. The recommended salt level has been set at 0.6%.
It's a serious issue, and manufacturers are treating it as such, as high salt intake is linked to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease.
"We are working hard to meet this target with Knorr 100% Soup," UBF Foodsolutions' Alice Hannan says. "All new flavours will be below 0.6%."
She adds that the trend towards stronger, roasted, peppery flavours will help compensate for the loss of flavouring from using less salt.
"There are so many flavours in our soups, so many herbs and spices, I don't think the consumer will notice the reduction in salt content," she says.
Some suppliers are even using the salt issue as a selling point. RHM Foodservice highlights the results of recent analysis which compared salt levels in McDougall's minestrone, mushroom, thick vegetable and tomato soups against its top two competitors'. The test results show that McDougall's has the lowest salt level per 100g of dehydrated product in all four variants.