The Truth About Canned Soup

Your soup could be canned up in a chemical stew.

November 30, 2011

Don't know what's in your canned soup? You're not alone.

Soup is a must-have for chilly winter days and to battle anything that ails you, be it a nasty cold or a case of the winter blues. Plus, now that it comes in cans, cups, and drinkable bottles, it's easy to grab on the go. But what are you getting when you slurp down that tomato soup, beefy stew, or other canned favorite? Often sold under a healthy halo, processed soups are full of a lot of ingredients that won't be listed on the label—such as industrial chemicals, pesticides, and weird food additives.


BPA is a chemical used in cash-register receipts and some plastics, but also in the epoxy resin liner of most metal food cans. The bummer? It's most likely leaching into your favorite soup, exposing you to the synthetic, estrogen-like substance that has been linked to obesity, breast and prostate cancers, and aggression and other behavioral problems in young girls. The amounts of BPA used in the cans varies drastically, but an alarming new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests we're ingesting dangerous levels of the hormone-mimicking chemical when we eat soup even once a day. The study's authors asked some participants to eat Progresso soup for lunch five days a week, while others ate homemade soup. All of the canned soup eaters had detectable levels of BPA in their urine at the end of the experiment. What's even more striking is the amount of the chemical detected after downing a can of soup once a day for five days. Compared to those eating fresh soup, the group eating canned soup saw BPA levels jumped more than 1,000 percent.

The huge spike in BPA seen after eating canned soup is "unlike anything we've ever seen," says Laura Vandenberg, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow of biology at the Center for Developmental and Regenerative Biology at Tufts University in Massachusetts. "The levels are shocking."

Americans are seriously bingeing in the sodium department, a dangerous practice considering excess sodium doesn't just leave us looking bloated, but also can lead to life-threatening heart attack and stroke. A big reason sodium is such a problem has to do with deceptive labeling practices, explains Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). "On most canned soup labels, you'll see numbers in the 800- to 900-milligram (mg) range," she explains "That's already about half a day's worth for most Americans, and that assumes you're only consuming an eight-ounce serving."

Seriously, when have you eaten just half a can of soup? Probably never. And a recent survey showed that most people consider a full can of soup to be one serving, when most labels say the can contents serve two or more. Even when you eat a low-sodium soup that contains 400 mg of sodium per serving, you wind up with twice that amount if you actually eat the entire can in one sitting. If you're still going to go for canned soup, be aware of the serving sizes, and don't fall for claims like, "25 percent less sodium!" The sodium content still could be dangerously high.

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Flavor Enhancers
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) brings out wonderful flavors in canned soup, but if you're one of the many people sensitive to this flavor enhancer, the food additive could lead to a crushing headache. Animal studies have found that MSG is toxic to the brain, and researchers believe it causes migraines in people because it dilates blood vessels and impacts nerve cells in the brain. Along with headaches, people sensitive to MSG often experience pressure in the neck and face, sweating, abdominal cramps, and tingling in the fingers.

If MSG makes you sick, you should also look out for ingredients like "natural flavoring" and "hydrolyzed vegetable protein," two other additives that also contain glutamate, according to CSPI's Food Additives database.

Pesticides and GMOs

As our food system becomes more industrialized, more and more farm chemicals are winding up not just on our food, but also in the food we eat. Within the last 20 years, chemical farmers have overwhelmingly adopted genetically modified seeds, or GMOs, for crops like corn and soy, two common ingredients in canned soup. (There are more than a dozen different ingredients derived from corn and soy.) These seeds have been genetically engineered to withstand heavy sprayings of Roundup, and when that happens, the pesticide is absorbed by the plant and winds up in your food. Roundup is used so heavily, in fact, that scientists recently detected it in rain. Constant low-level exposure to the pesticide can cause obesity, heart problems, circulation problems, and diabetes, says Warren Porter, PhD, professor of environmental toxicity and zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. As if that's not bad enough, the process of genetic modification, when a plant's DNA is changed in a lab, not by nature, is known to cause spontaneous abortion and infertility in animals and has been linked to the skyrocketing rates of food allergies in people over the past decade.

Healthy Soup Tips:

Making homemade soup may be a little more time consuming than popping open a can, but it comes without the chemicals, and you can freeze it for those days and nights when cooking a full meal isn't feasible. Try one of these healthy soup recipes or just wing it. "Clean Out the Refrigerator" Soup is a great way to use up about-to-go-bad vegetables or small bits of pasta or dried beans you have lying around.

When you do make homemade soups, start with homemade stock. Like soup, it's a lot easier to make than you realize. "Use a pressure cooker," advises Joy Manning, nutrition editor of Prevention magazine. "Many stores sell chicken backs and necks for pennies a pound and, if not, a few pounds of whole chicken wings makes for a particularly rich stock." Or, save the bones, skin, and leftovers from the last chicken or turkey you carved up and use those. Cook everything at high pressure for 1 hour—"throw in a halved onion, a carrot, and a stalk of celery or two if you have them," Manning suggests—strain with a fine sieve, and you have several quarts of amazing stock ready for your next soup-making session.

Alternatively, you can buy commercial stocks and soups packaged in glass or cartons, which are BPA free, or dry soup mixes that need nothing more than some water and an hour or two on your stove. Always opt for organic brands.