If you venture into a grocery store this time of year you can start to see them stacked high. Like red and white mountains towering from the supermarket shelves, these cans adorn end-of-aisle displays and pop up across the store. Yes, it’s the American processed food classic—Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Condensed Soup.
Founded in 1869 the Campbell’s Soup Company has become an icon of the packaged food industry. It’s a surprise to some, but its famous condensed soups weren’t invented until 1897. When I ran the Progresso Soup business, Campbell’s was the 800-pound gorilla of the soup aisle. Yes, Progresso’s adult soup strategy carved out a bigger slice of the category, but Campbell’s still called the shots. Its condensed recipe soups were an American staple and a “cash cow” for Campbell’s and grocers alike.
But when you take a closer look at the condensed Cream of Mushroom soup label, it’s hard to feel very good about this popular item.
Thankfully mushrooms do show up in the ingredients, but there are lots of reasons to be concerned:
- Cream (milk) and Whey: Does it surprise you that a soup that calls itself “cream of mushroom” has to list cream under the disclaimer “contains less than 2% of”? And if that wasn’t enough, the cream/milk/whey ingredients are likely from cows that have been fed GMO grains, routinely received antibiotics, and pumped up with rBGH, recombinant bovine growth hormone.
- Highly processed oils: Vegetable oils like corn, cottonseed, canola, and/or soybean are anything but natural. In fact, they’re so highly processed I call them FrankenFats. Why? First, most vegetable oils are made from genetically-modified ingredients (corn, soybeans, or rapeseed – aka canola). Second, these oils are processed via chemical extraction since solvents like petroleum-derived hexane produce much higher yields than the traditional, mechanical pressing techniques. Then to remove these solvents the oils undergo more harsh processing. If that weren’t enough, the oils endure extreme heat, bleaching, and additional straining. And what are you left with? A tasteless, nutritionally inferior oil that your body may not even recognize.
- Salt is essential for most packaged foods. It gives flavor to otherwise highly processed, tasteless ingredients. To put this in perspective, one serving of condensed cream of mushroom soup has one-third of your daily allowance of sodium. Scary!
- MSG and chemically produced glutamic acids (yeast extract and soy protein concentrate): MSG is another of the industry’s go-to, cheap ways to add taste to canned soup. What exactly is MSG? It’s the sodium salt of glutamic acid. However, as consumers have become more reluctant to buy products with MSG, Big Food has developed some sneaky ways to hide MSG substitutes in its soup—typically highly processed ingredients that are high in glutamic acid. While food companies and the FDA believe MSG and these high-glutamic acid alternatives are all safe, many people claim to still have adverse reactions to them. So, if you’re looking to avoid MSG and its look-a-likes, what can you do? Look for foods that are labeled “No MSG” or “No added MSG.” Also, to avoid chemically produced, high glutamic acid / MSG look-a-likes, look on your ingredient label for HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable proteins), Wheat Protein (Hydrolyzed), Corn Protein (Hydrolyzed), Soy Protein (Hydrolyzed), Yeast Extracts, Hydrolyzed Yeast, Autolyzed Yeast, Soy Extracts, Soy Protein Concentrate, and Protein Isolates.
- Modified food starch: This is a Big Food catch-all phrase that covers a lot of territory. Although it doesn’t mean that the starch has been genetically modified, most modified food starch is sourced from GMO corn. What makes this starch earn its “modified” moniker? It refers to processing the starch has undergone to either physically, enzymatically, or chemically alter its natural properties. Yummy, huh?
- Flavorings: These days a word like “flavorings” can mean so many different things it’s scary. While it could be fairly innocent, with the introduction of salt and sweet flavoring enhancers that have been minimally tested, I’m increasingly wary of this innocuous sounding ingredient.
- BPA concerns: Bisphenol A (BPA), is a hormone-disrupting chemical that in very small amounts could lead to behavioral problems, obesity, heart attacks, early puberty in girls, infertility, type 2 diabetes, and even breast and prostate cancers. While Campbell’s and most major soup manufacturers have pledged to phase out BPA, they haven’t been very forthcoming on the details. As of the writing of this post the Campbell’s statement regarding BPA is: “The current can packaging used for our products is one of the safest packaging options in the world. We also recognize that there is a debate on this topic and some consumers want us to use other materials in our packaging. The trust of our consumers, which we have earned for over 140 years, is paramount and we intend to keep it. For these reasons, we’ve already started using alternatives to BPA in some of our soup packaging, and we’re working to phase out the use of BPA in the linings in all our canned products.” Campbell’s pledged to remove BPA from its cans in March 2012, and almost two years later they appear to still be dragging their feet.
So what’s a person to do? While the choice is ultimately yours, I believe there’s a much better option—a homemade version of cream of mushroom condensed soup that not only avoids all these highly processed ingredients, but also uses a ton of veggies (mushrooms, celery, and onions). If you’re looking for a way to sneak some vegetables into your meals, this homemade “condensed” soup is an easy way to do it.
Also, it’s very flexible. If a recipe calls for Cream of Celery or Cream of Chicken Soup, this homemade option is an easy swap. Finally, it also makes a darned good Cream of Mushroom soup—just check the notes for how to make a traditional soup from it! So triple the ingredients, and use one now and freeze some for later. This Homemade “Condensed” Cream of Mushroom Soup will be a great, go-to option in your cooking arsenal!
- 3 tablespoons butter
- ⅓ cup celery finely chopped (1 stalk of celery)
- ⅓ cup onion, finely chopped (1/2 onion)
- ⅔ cup mushrooms, finely chopped (~3 oz., or about 5 mushrooms)
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 3 grinds of black pepper
- ⅔ cups whole milk
- 3 ½ tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour
- Salt & Pepper to taste (I use about ½ t. of salt or seasoned salt)
- In a 3-quart saucepan melt butter over medium low heat.
- Sauté the onion, celery, mushrooms, and garlic until soft.
- Add pepper
- Whisk flour into milk. Slowly pour milk/flour mixture over the vegetables.
- Warm the soup over medium heat, don't let it boil.
- When the soup has thickened to a desired consistency, season to taste.
If your recipe calls for Cream of Celery or Cream of Chicken Soup, this is still a great substitute.
If you prefer you can reduce the amount of mushrooms and increase the celery and onions for a less mushroomy flavor.
If you're looking for a gluten-free option to thicken up this condensed soup alternative try potato flour.
To enjoy as a soup, add about ½ cup milk for every cup of condensed soup. Add more milk to get the soup to your desired consistency.
So you ready to make a batch? Do you have any favorite recipes you make that call for condensed soup? If so, what are they? And stay tuned … if you’re a fan of the Thanksgiving classic, Green Bean Casserole, then my next post is right up your alley … and a great way to put to use this homemade “condensed” soup recipe to use!