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I don’t have time to make soup from scratch. Are store-bought varieties healthy?

The question: What should I look for when buying soup? I don't have time to make it from scratch.

The answer: While making your own soup allows you to control the ingredients – including salt – there are many commercial products that deliver plenty of nutrition without excessive amounts of sodium. But you have to read nutrition labels to know what nutrients you're getting and which ones you aren't.

Limit saturated fat. Soups made from broth or water – rather than cream – are low in saturated fat, the type that raises LDL (bad) cholesterol in the blood. Many brands of chicken noodle, vegetable, tomato and bean soups are very low in saturated fat; look for a soup with one gram or less per 250 ml serving.

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Watch out for trans fat. It's not just cream that adds artery-clogging fat to soup. Noodle cups and instant ramen soups are typically made from pre-fried noodles in vegetable oil, which increases the fat content. Not a bad thing if calories aren't a concern and a healthy oil is used. Worse though, is that some brands contain partially hydrogenated oil, a source of trans fat. Choose products that are trans fat-free.

Look for less sodium. Soups are notorious for being high in sodium, with some of the worst offenders delivering more than two-thirds of a day's worth (1000 milligrams) per 250 ml serving. (The daily upper limit of sodium for healthy adults is 2300 milligrams – the amount that's found in one teaspoon of table salt.)

Choose a soup with no more than 500 mg of sodium per serving. If you find a lower sodium soup lacking in flavour, add fresh or dried herbs such as basil, parsley, rosemary, thyme and pepper to improve taste.

Consider fibre and antioxidants. The most nutritious soups are made with beans, vegetables and whole grains (wild rice, whole-wheat pasta), which add protein, fibre and vitamins and minerals to your meal.

Most split pea, bean, lentil and barley soups have at least 5 grams of fibre per serving, and some bean soups have more than 10 grams. Vegetable-rich soups are a good source of antioxidant nutrients vitamins A and C.

To boost your nutrient intake, at least 15 per cent of the Daily Value for two or more of the following: fibre, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron or calcium.

If your favourite soup is low in vegetables, add your own. Frozen mixed vegetables, baby spinach leaves and chopped kale are easy ways to boost the nutritional value of commercial soups.

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Leslie Beck, a Registered Dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct lesliebeck.com.

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