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As a food historian, I’m oddly fascinated by the mm-mm militant war raging between General Mills’ Progresso soups and the Campbell’s Soup Company. The battle is so heated that there’s even a Soup War website where you can lend support to your favorite brand. The soup war is a longstanding one, but it reached a boiling point last year when Campbell placed an ad in The New York Times showing a can of Progresso with the caption, “Made With MSG” opposite a can of Campbell’s Select Harvest with the headline: “Made With TLC” (tender love and care). Progresso retaliated by announcing a month later that it had removed MSG from 26 of its soups and then also ran a full page ad in the Times announcing in large red block print: “Campbell’s has 95 soups made with MSG.” The soup war may be a silly marketing creation, but the stakes are high for both company: Campbells overall sales in 2007 were a staggering $7.9 billion, while General Mills had sales of $13.7 billion in the fiscal year ended May 25 of that year.
The leaves are turning into shocks of crimson, orange and yellow here in my part of Southwestern Ohio and nothing is better when it’s chilly outside than a simmering bowl of vegetable soup. The best (and cheapest) soup is my own vegetarian vegetable soup, but sometimes there’s no beating the convenience of heat-and-eat, especially when it’s on sale. So, I decided to conduct my own taste test to find out which processed vegetable soup is best. The contenders: Campbell’s Select Harvest Light Southwestern-Style Vegetable and Progresso Light Italian-Style Vegetable. Yes, it is a bit like comparing apples to oranges — Progresso also makes a Southwestern-Style Vegetable and Campbell’s an Italian-Style Vegetable, but both are made with meat-based broths that don’t appeal to this vegetarian.
Campbell’s: The first thing I noticed about the Campbell’s variety is that the ingredients are extremely easy to read and the text is larger. Ingredients include carrots, celery, tomato puree, tomato paste, black beans, corn, green and red bell peppers and celery with footnotes explaining what any unfamiliar and chemical-sounding ingredients like cellulose gel and citric acid are and why they’re included. The label also claims the soup to be 100 percent natural, heart healthy, and a rich source of fiber and vitamin A, all of which also appeals to this health-conscious tree-hugger. As detailed on Campbell’s website, each can contains two servings of: 50 calories, a half-gram of fat, 480mg sodium, 4g fiber, 4g protein, 20 percent vitamin A, four percent calcium and eight percent iron.
I read a news report sometime last year about the ways in which Big Food is seeking to manage rising food costs without raising prices. The majority of companies either reduced portion sizes or watered down its products. Campbell’s certainly seems to have done the latter. I found its soup to be very diluted and the broth to be bland and virtually flavorless. What few vegetables I saw floating in the bowl were soft, but not mushy and the colors were still bright.
Progresso: The first thing I noticed about the Progresso soup was the large “Weight Watchers” points endorsement featured prominently below the Progresso label. In fact, it’s easier to read the WW blitz than it is the ingredients, which include tomatoes, celery, green beans, carrots, tomato paste, peas, penne pasta and spinach, amongst other ingredients and additives. Each can contains two servings of: 60 calories, zero grams of fat, 820mg sodium, 4g fiber, 2g protein, 25 percent vitamin A, six percent calcium and four percent iron. Unlike Campbell, nutritional information for Progresso soups is NOT available on its website.
I found the Progresso soup to be very flavorful, much more so than the Campbell’s variety — you can actually see that the broth is peppered with a variety of spices. I wished that they had omitted the pasta and included more veggies, but I found an abundance of both.
Who wins? I love Campbell’s easy-to-read labeling over Progresso’s squint-worthy text, but I’d definitely buy Progresso on my next grocery shopping trip. Both soups cost about the same price, but I found the Progresso to be a much better bargain. Of course, the Progresso does contain nearly double the sodium, which might be of concern to folks watching their sodium intake, but it also contains more calcium and vitamin A than the Campbell’s brand. Both varieties are extremely limited in their vegetarian offerings, so quality may vary depending on which flavor varieties you compare.
How about you? Do you like Campbell or Progresso better? Add your soup reviews in the comments below.