Misleading labels, high amounts of sodium, and unnecessary ingredients are just a few reasons to be choosier about which soup you eat.
Maybe your mom always gave you chicken noodle soup when you were sick or to warm you up on a cold winter’s night.
And maybe you do the same for yourself and your family, too.
For many people, chicken noodle soup covers the nutritional spectrum from comfort food to home remedy.
But exactly how healthy is this American staple?
“Don’t be fooled. Chicken noodle soup is often not healthy and anyone with high blood pressure needs to be particularly careful in selecting which chicken noodle soup [to eat],” Devin Alexander, celebrity chef and author of “You Can Have It!,” told Healthline.
Here’s a look at each ingredient and how it can add or take away from a serving’s nutritional value.
Since dark meat is less expensive than white meat, Alexander says restaurants often use dark meat in their chicken noodle soup. However, she says white meat is the better choice.
Kate Letten, registered dietitian in Riverside, Illinois, agrees, noting that diced chicken, which is the white meat with fat cut off, is considered to be a high biological value protein, meaning it has all the essential protein your body can’t make for itself.
“Typically, a cup of diced chicken has 43 grams of protein, and one cup of Campbell’s Homestyle Chicken soup has 14 grams of protein so only about a third of the protein when comparing it to one cup of diced chicken,” Letten told Healthline.
While making homemade chicken noodle soup allows you to control what goes into the soup, take caution with recipes that call for rotisserie chicken.
“Rotisserie chicken has a ton of fat and salt in it, so I’d definitely steer clear of that,” Alexander said. “Your best option is to poach white meat chicken [breast] in a stock to keep it lean.”
If you find white meat chicken to be dry, Alexander said you may not be cooking it properly.
Chicken noodle soup is almost always made with white pasta rather than whole grain or whole wheat, unless the soup is gluten-free.
“Even [gluten-free noodles] tend to be made from rice, not higher-fiber options,” Alexander said. When making soup at home, I’d always opt for a pasta that is high in fiber [or has] added protein.”
High-fiber options to consider include green lentil pasta.
Also, the “noodles” don’t actually have to be the shape of noodles.
“It seems that penne and rotini come in much healthier varieties than ‘noodles,'” Alexander said.
While bone broth and homemade broth can be filled with healthful nutrition, Alexander said they can be hard to make tasteful without salt.
“Broth-based soups need salt, so much so that when I was writing the ‘Biggest Loser’ cookbooks, which restricted the sodium, I was allowed a little bit of ‘wiggle room’ on broth-based soup because it’s one of the few foods that you just can’t skip the salt,” she said.
To keep the sodium as low as possible, Alexander mixes a no-sodium broth with a lower-sodium broth.
Other ways to make up for having less salt are to add more garlic, pepper, and fresh herbs.
“Or try a lower-salt substitute with no sodium broth. I usually use some actual salt and some low salt to make it taste as close to the real thing as possible,” Alexander said.
If you’re eating broth from a store, she advises paying close attention to the sodium.
For instance, one brand of store-bought canned soup states that it is a “25% less sodium chicken noodle soup,” however it contains 660 milligrams of sodium in half a cup and 1,220 milligrams in one cup, which is nearly half of the recommended daily allowance of sodium for healthy individuals.
“When buying broth, look for the word ‘low’ as opposed to ‘lower’ or ‘less’,” Alexander said. “If a food says, ‘low sodium,’ it’s legally required to have 140 milligrams of sodium or less. ‘Lower’ and ‘less’ are relative to the original product they’re replacing, so could still have a ton, and usually do when it comes to chicken broth.”
When eating chicken noodle soup at restaurants, she says take caution and consider that one popular chain restaurant’s cup of “Low-Fat Chicken Noodle Soup” has 930 milligrams of salt while their bowl has 1,400 milligrams of salt. Another chain sells a similar soup.
To make these veggies healthier, Alexander suggests buying the organic versions. She also recommends leaving the skin on carrots because they contain many nutrients.
Letten points out that most canned soups have little to no grams of fiber.
“As a result, don’t count on the soup to make a dent in the amount of fiber one needs every day, which is around 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women ages 19 to 50,” she said.
Before vegetables like celery, onion, and carrots are added to soup stock, they’re often sautéed in butter.
“You really don’t need butter at all in chicken noodle soup,” said Alexander.
When butter isn’t used, she says canola or vegetable oil and even lard is sometimes used.
“You definitely want to steer clear of lard for a ‘clean’ and lighter soup. Extra virgin olive oil offers great flavor and will certainly do the trick getting the veggies sautéed,” Alexander said.
Since chicken noodle soup has little to no calcium, Letten suggests eating apples and cheese as your sides.
“The apples would help meet fiber recommendations,” she said. “I would also pair [your soup] with a hearty salad that includes lean chicken with some walnuts or another healthy nut to help increase omega-3 recommendations.”