ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Soup is hot, depending on whom you ask. While market research forecasts sluggish growth for the category over the next few years, the segment’s smaller players are positioned to slurp up share.

Sales of prepackaged soup declined between 2008 and 2011 and rose slowly between 2011 and 2013, according to a 2014 report from Mintel, Chicago.

“The U.S. soup market is forecast to grow slowly between 2013 and 2019,” said Amy Kraushaar, category manager of U.S. food and drink at Mintel, “but brands can help spur growth by offering more (better-for-you) soups, expanded flavor varieties, and more convenient packaging that allows for heating and eating from the same container and easy consumption on the go to attract busy consumers.”

Such innovations were prevalent at the Natural Products Expo West held March 5-8 in Anaheim. The Hain Celestial Group, Lake Success, N.Y., unveiled a new refrigerated line called Imagine Culinary Soup in five varieties, including organic kale and potato, organic carrot ginger coconut, organic butternut squash, lemon chicken quinoa, and chicken tortilla.

“Soup will be a big category,” said Irwin Simon, founder, president, chief executive officer and chairman of Hain Celestial, in February during his company’s presentation at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference. “You cook with soup; it’s a meal, and it will continue to grow in many, many ways, and I just see the opportunities in fresh, H.P.P. (high pressure pasteurization), which gives you a longer shelf-life, and that’s something we will continue to do.”

While refrigerated or frozen fresh soup claimed a 4.1% share of the soup category in 2013, according to Mintel, many such formats were on display at Expo West. The refrigerated soups from Boulder Organic!, Niwot, Colo., are formulated in a dedicated gluten-free kitchen and packaged fresh. The collection includes vegan, vegetarian and certified humane options, and all products are U.S.D.A. Organic Certified, Non-GMO Project Verified and certified gluten-free. Flavors include butternut squash with sage, roasted tomato basil, green chile corn chowder, garden minestrone, potato leek, red lentil dahl, and the brand’s newest variety, golden quinoa and kale. The soups have a 10-week shelf life in the refrigerator.

New refrigerated soups from Nona Lim, Oakland, include celery root, kale potato, and spicy rice. Made with vegetables from local farmers, homemade stock and spices, the ready-to-heat soups are Non-GMO Project Verified, vegan and certified gluten-free. Other varieties in the range include zucchini, Thai green curry, red lentil veggie, carrot ginger and Asian lemongrass.

“We’re proud to offer new flavors for our enthusiastic customers and retail partners,” said Nona Lim, founder and chief executive officer. “Our goal is to create convenient soups and broths that are not just delicious and fresh, but clean and healthy, too.”

Global inspiration

Ethnic flavors are gaining steam in soups, with a particular focus on Indian dal (also dhal or dahl). Several companies at Expo West exhibited a version of the spicy lentil porridge. A new line of vegan soups from Maison Le Grand, Blainville, Quebec, includes an Indian dhal variety, featuring a creamy blend of red lentils, onions, coconut milk, butternut squash, fresh garlic and Indian spices.

Global Gourmet Foods, Inc., Richmond, B.C., manufactures a frozen line of soups called Smart Soup in seven flavors: French lentil, Greek minestrone, Thai coconut curry, Indian bean masala, Moroccan chickpea, Santa Fe corn chowder, and Vietnamese carrot lemongrass. Packaged in single serving containers, Smart Soup is vegan and gluten-free with no preservatives. The products also are low in fat and sodium.

Jaali Bean, Chicago, markets lentil soup kits in three varieties: savory and spiced, tomato and chile, and carrot and carom. The products are gluten-free, vegan and Non-GMO Project Verified and contain 11 grams of protein per serving.

World Soups, Inc. also offers soup kits in ready-to-serve biodegradable disposable paper bowls, which include a pouch of broth or noodles or both, plus eating utensils. Varieties include Chinese style wonton noodle, Vietnamese style pho noodle, Japanese style udon, Mexican style tortilla, Thai style coconut chicken, and Indian style lentil. The products have a refrigerated shelf life of two months.

Heat, eat, repeat

Packaging plays a key role in recent soup innovations. Nearly three-quarters of respondents to a Mintel survey reported interest in soup with microwaveable packaging, with nearly 60% showing interest in disposable, collapsible cups.

“These types of convenient innovations are likely to increase purchases of soup products, given consumer demand for convenient foods that suit their busy lifestyles,” Mintel said.

Plum Organics, a business unit of the Campbell Soup Co., recently entered the soup category with the launch of organic soups for children packaged in single-serve pouches. Varieties include chicken noodle, tomato and turkey meatball, and chicken fiesta, and each serving contains 7 to 8 grams of protein and 110 to 130 calories.

Simply West Coast, a division of Coldfish Seafood Co., introduced a new line of gluten-free seafood soups in ready-to-eat pouches with such flavors as Classic Seafood Chowder, with wild-caught sockeye salmon, halibut, rockfish, red skin-on potatoes and vegetables in a creamy base; Savory Seafood Bisque, featuring smoky black cod, white salmon and white halibut simmered in a white wine cream sauce; Sassy Seafood Curry, with wild albacore tuna simmered in coconut cream and infused with lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal; and Kickin’ Seafood Chili, featuring small white beans, yellow corn, green chilies, wild halibut, cumin and tomatilles.

Health matters

While health attributes drive purchasing decisions in the soup aisle, descriptions should emphasize flavor and unique ingredients over low- or no-sodium claims, Mintel said. Nearly 90% of soup buyers are interested in products with a full serving of vegetables, but less than a third said they would pay more for them, and many shoppers perceive lower-sodium products as less flavorful, according to Mintel. More than three-fourths of survey respondents showed interest in soups with organic ingredients.

The Campbell Soup Co., which dominates the market with a 44% share in 2013, showcased its new line of organic soups at Expo West. Packaged in cartons with such varieties as creamy butternut squash, chicken noodle and chicken tortilla, the product line extends the Camden, N.J., company’s reach into the fast-growing premium soup segment.

“I do think that the major shift for us in terms of out-of-the-can packaging has been in the area of premium soup, which has been a place where we've expanded our Campbell Slow Kettle in tubs, our bisques in boxes, and now our new organic soups, which are also going into that segment,” said Denise Morrison, president and chief executive officer of Campbell, during a Feb. 25 earnings call. “And that segment is growing. And that segment also commands a higher price point, so we are very pleased with the margins that are in that particular segment.”