Q: A can of soup is often my go-to lazy meal, especially in the dead of winter, but I’ve read that all canned soup is unhealthy—even the low-fat kind. Should I be worried?
A: The nation is wrestling with what will likely be the worst flu epidemic in a decade— it only makes sense that you're hankering to stockpile chicken-noodle. But you also know that canned soups hang with the maligned packaged-processed-foods posse, so you’re conflicted. We get it.
Well, good news: Canned soups' blanket bad rap is largely undeserved, says Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., C.D.N., an adjunct nutrition professor at NYU. As with all packaged foods, you've just got to know what you’re up against—and eyeball labels carefully. So here, a few rules:
1. Watch the sodium—and fat. Canned soups can be sky-high in sodium, which, when overdone, can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. So opt for low-sodium soups whenever possible, says Dr. Young, and aim to not exceed 350 mg. (When soups boast added health benefits, including hefty vegetable portions, you can go up to 480mg, but add water before boiling to dilute.) Skip creamed soups, too, says Dr. Young, which are fats- and calorie-loaded, and opt for tomato- or vegetable-based broths. (Pro tip: If craving thickness, look for vegetable puree as an ingredient.)
2. Beware of BPA. Another strike against canned soup is its plastic linings, which may contain harmful Bisphenol A (BPA). The Environmental Working Group found that the toxin can leach from lining to food. Canned soups contained the highest levels, and can't be rinsed before cooking. Barring this, try mixing it up with box soups (including Pacific or Trader Joe's), frozen soups (including Tabatchnick), or BPA-free cans (including Amy's Organic Soups).
3. Kick up the nutrition. When choosing a soup, pick one with the fewest ingredients and seek at least 3g of fiber and 5g of protein—your best bets are bean (lentil, white bean, split pea) and minestrone (Italian soup with veggies, beans, pasta, and herbs in veggie broth), says Dr. Young. From there, add frozen (make sure there's only one ingredient) or fresh vegetables, including immune-boosting carrots and red bell peppers, and season with health-promoting spices, like oregano, basil, rosemary, pepper, or garlic.
So even if you adhere to these guidelines…how much canned soup is too much? It all depends on how heavy your overall diet is in sodium-laden processed foods, which contribute some 75 percent of the sodium in Americans' diets. A presidential advisory published in AHA's journal Circulation in November 2012, and based on a review of recent studies, recommends all Americans limit daily sodium to less than 1,500 mg—so go from there. Just remember, one teaspoon of table salt contains 2,325 mg of sodium, and processed foods are typically already heavily salted.
MF EXPERT: Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D., C.D.N. is an adjunct nutrition professor at NYU and author of The Portion Teller.