The Sad, Quiet Death of Campbell's Low-Sodium Soup

For those of you who missed it, several weeks ago Campbell's gave up and killed off their line of lower-salt soups.

Why? Because consumers hated them.

Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few food bloggers and public health pundits who are spinning this into yet another tale of corporate greed. Hey, Campbell's--just like every other food company--will do anything to increase their profits. Including killing off their own customers by adding salt back to their soup.

Maybe it's just me, but you'd think it would be understandable that a food company might stop trying to sell food that their customers clearly don't want to buy.

Here's the problem: when you use a paranoid lens like that to consider a situation like this, you also adopt a fundamentally disempowering view that corporations are too powerful for us. You adopt a view that these companies, with their enormous advertising and marketing budgets, can tell us what to buy. And it assumes that we consumers are powerless to resist all those billions of dollars in ads.

Of course there's a hilariously huge hole in the logic of that lens. If Campbell's (or any other food company's) marketing was really that powerful, they could easily convince us to buy low-sodium soup. And they could make us like it too! Such a powerful, greedy corporation would quickly persuade us mindless zombies that their low-salt soups were delicious. Right?

Hmmm. But yet they couldn't. People still hated them--and didn't buy 'em.

Which proves a somewhat inconvenient truth: that we consumers actually decided that these soups would be unsuccessful--by not purchasing them. As with every other decision about what corporations sell us, we choose everything on our store shelves by making the final decision to buy or not buy.

There's one more appalling logic error that comes flying out of the mouths of public health pundits whenever a major food company makes a seemingly anti-consumer decision like this. The flawed logic goes something like this: Yes, our culture has an obesity problem, a hypertension problem, and we are getting fatter and fatter as a nation as we effectively eat ourselves to death. And every public health pundit has an obligation to at least appear to care about these important and serious problems.

Well, there's no better way to appear to care about these issues than to appear on TV (or write in your blog or book) pointing out new examples of food companies greedily putting profits before the health of their customers. In other words, a pundit can easily say that Campbell's should sell soup with less salt, but they won't--because they only care about making money. Somehow, this message seems vaguely logical, and it gives the pundit's audience a tasty and easy-to-swallow message that goes down very easily.

Except that any company that insists on selling things its customers don't want to buy is gonna fail faster than Lehman Brothers. The bottom line, however, is that this anti-corporate, easy-to-swallow message is so easy to articulate, and it resonates so well with the average consumer, who wouldn't say it? Especially if doing so will burnish your reputation as the next Eliot Spitzer of food.

Uh, whoops. Wait. I meant the next Eliot Ness of food.

But here's the problem: that public health pundit is actually saying "Campbell's: stop selling foods that people like, and start selling what I think people should like. After all, I'm a food expert."

If this seems vaguely arrogant and condescending to you, good. Because it is.

To me, selling a hyperpalatable message like this--a message that encourages consumers to give away their power, and a message that appeals to consumers' emotions at the expense of their intelligence--is way more greedy and unethical than selling a can of salty soup.

Okay. There's another, better, solution--and CK readers already know it.

Let's face it, it's just as easy and far cheaper to make your own soup at home. Sure, with Campbell's you can easily get 1-2 servings of soup on the table in just 10-12 minutes. But take a look at any of the amazing soups available here at CK's recipe index. With a few incremental minutes of work, you can get three, four or even five times as many servings of a delicious, healthy, homemade soup or stew on your table, and enjoy leftovers for days afterward. You'll have healthier, better tasting food on the table for a fraction of the cost and time commitment.

And then you can control the sodium level in your food yourself, rather than letting some company control it for you.

Campbell Adds Salt To Spur Soup Sales.
Campbell Soup Fights the Salt Wars.
Food Politics
There are no good studies linking salt to hypertension.
Scientific American
But wait! There's no doubt about the dangers of salt.
Who's to Blame For Obesity?
Marc Gunther

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Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that you didn't reference this bit of news in your article:

"The Campbell Soup Company has settled a lawsuit for $1.05m, in which four New Jersey women claimed that the company’s ‘less sodium’ claim on tomato soup was misleading."

Laura said...

I would guess that the main reason that the low sodium soups didn't sell is that anyone watching their sodium is probably health savvy enough to know not to buy canned soup in the first place. As you said, it's pretty easy to make your own and put whatever you want in. The people who are buying junk like Campbell's Soups are the people who aren't watching their diet and only want what tastes good - regardless of the sodium level.

Tragic Sandwich said...

This is part of why I rarely eat canned soup. (Every now and then I want the Campbell's cream of tomato that I remember from my childhood, but I doctor it up so much now that it's not the same soup anyhow. This happens maybe once a year at the most.)

Anonymous said...

I prefer to make all of my own soups, but I will make an exception for clam chowder cause I just can't get it right without all the cream and I just don't want the leftovers. I had some of the low sodium clam chowder, and it just tasted "off". And we don't have very many processed foods at home, so I don't like lots of salt, but the soup had no flavor. Might be why they were discontinued. To quote a Top Chef contestant "I forgot to have Flavor!"

kasey said...

I don't eat a lot of canned soup, but I did try those less sodium soups and they were not at all good. Oddly, they were still terrible even if I added in some salt.

I take some exception to Laura's comment above - I think it's lovely that she has the time and inclination to make pots of soup and need never resort to canned, but if I'd like to have an occasional can of soup for myself (one person) without making a whole pot from scratch, well, I don't think I've suddenly lost my "watching my diet" bona fides.

chacha1 said...

I too think Laura should be careful about blanket statements. I'm a careful home cook and fitness enthusiast, but I buy the occasional can of Campbell's.

Because replicating a cream of broccoli binder for my otherwise homemade chowder is simply not worth the time and effort I would have to put into it.

And if I've got the flu, I am not going to stand in the kitchen for hours making the cream of tomato I crave.

Just because something comes in a can doesn't make it "junk." I expect that "the main reason" the low-sodium soups didn't sell is ... lack of flavor. I tried a few, and yep they were a little bland, and yep I didn't buy them twice.

Laura said...

Oops, to clarify: I definitely buy packaged soup on occasion (for nostalgia, for when I'm sick, etc). And, I'm single and cook one-person only meals, so I totally sympathize with you, Kasey! However, when I posited health consciousness as a reason that the low sodium soups didn't sell, I mean that they weren't adopted by regular purchasers of canned soup. A few cans a year is not going to keep Campbell's profitable; it would require the regular canned soup buyers to convert in order to keep these on the shelves.

Daniel said...

Good comments and discussion so far. I'll say it again, though: What's by far the most appalling to me is how easy it is to blame Campbell's for no longer selling soup... that never sold in the first place.

I don't believe there is anything wrong with buying this or any other soup, as long as your purchases are conscious and not mindless. Further, for whatever reason the food pundritry chooses some products to assail and ignores others.

Hey, Gatorade has a lot of salt too. Why aren't we demanding less sodium in our Gatorade? I think long-time CK readers will see what I'm getting at here. :)


Amber said...

I love the reminder that companies don't put out crap that doesn't sell...just like we wouldn't have a McD's on every corner if people weren't buying it! I wish more people would put their money where their mouth is and purchase goods and services accordingly! I'm a huge fan of buying whole, unprocessed foods in general, but convenience foods like canned soup do have a place in my diet as well... and for the record I hated those low sodium soups too. Yuck! I let Campbell's know that by not buying them... they listened since they aren't on the shelves any longer. Anyways, great post :)

Daniel said...

I couldn't have said it better myself Amber. Thanks for chiming in and thanks for the feedback.


Aleria said...

The reason why Campbell's less salt soups weren't selling is because they taste terrible. My friend accidentally bought a bunch of the tomato one and foisted a can off on me.

It tasted SWEET. I'm sorry but a tomato soup should not taste sweet. I'm all for less salt as I have a bit of a sensitivity to overly salty foods (plain potato chips are too salty to me). But it still should taste good.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree with this article/blog. I grew up with Campbell's soup, I fondly remember enjoying Chicken and Stars, Spaghettios, and Noodle-Os at lunch time. I greatly miss the way Campbell's soup used to taste; I believe we should have a choice. Sure, many people will say soup-lovers are killing themselves, but it is supposed to be our choice what to consume.

Daniel said...

Anonymous: we actually disagree a lot less than you'd think. We should have a choice. It's just that we can't have it both ways: we can't both want the choice and at the same time argue that food companies are killing us.


Anonymous said...

I tried their lower-sodium cream of mushroom soup a few years ago to make a quicker Swedish Meatball recipe. Right away I knew what was wrong after tasting it. The salt was replaced with sugar. That's why no one liked it. Processed foods = yuck. :) SALT and SUGAR in all if it! Cheap fillers.

Anonymous said...

I just found this article as a link in today's email. I think the reason the soups didn't sell, other than taste alone, is the price difference. The lower sodium products are just so much more costly than their regular products. This pretty much follows across all products, chips, pretzels, nuts. The price point really plays a role IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I won't even buy Campbell's now because they have replaced the sodium with potassium, in part. It's the same awful flavour in No Salt salt substitute.

I make a pot or two of homemade soup a week, but when I'm ill and don't have any on hand, and am too sick to make any, I use tinned soup. They used to be comforting, but are terrible and unpalatable now.

There are still a few brands refusing to change their recipes and not only do they taste better, they're cheaper.

I am 59. My blood pressure is excellent and so is my overall health. I resent do-gooders telling me what to eat and buy. This was the same crowd that urged us all to eat margarine and shortening.