Prepared soup has emerged as one of the most innovative meal categories in today’s supermarket. In addition to being increasingly served hot and ready-to-eat in the self-service deli, packaged heat-and-eat soups are merchandised in ambient, refrigerated and frozen shelf space, galleries, per se, for culinary creations.

Soup stands out among prepared food categories for its complexity and variety. It may be based on water, dairy or juice and include a variety of fruits and vegetables. Protein sources range from meats to eggs to legumes, and the starchy element may be potatoes, whole grains or pasta. And don’t forget the unlimited number of herbs and spices, as well as cheeses that make their way into the kettle during simmering. When the creation is complete, it is ladled into a bowl and presented as a three-dimensional work of art.

Campbell’s targets millennials

The composition of soups ranges from low-calorie, high-fiber vegetable soups to rich and calorically dense creamy soups, with a lot in between. Consumers historically have found soup to be comforting — think grandma’s chicken noodle soup as a cure for the common cold — as well as satisfying and nutritious. Depending on the variety, soup may contain every food group, and in the right proportion as My Plate … but served in a bowl or cup. Hence, the ease of convenience with simply heating and eating, along with the variety of flavors and formulations from which to choose, has made soup a trendy food. Food manufacturers are embracing the category.

This autumn, when temperatures started to drop, Campbell Soup Co., Camden, N.J., ushered in a new era of soups with modern epicurean offerings that feature bigger, bolder flavors that appeal to diverse palates. Global, bold and gourmet are the adjectives used by Thomas Griffiths, Campbell’s certified master chef, to describe the company’s new lineup.

“People are hungry for an authentic, homemade experience but don’t always have the time to create it,” he said. “We have dialed up the flavor in our new gourmet offerings to be savored as a stand-alone indulgence after a long day of work or as a simple starter for a dinner party.”

Coconut, chorizo and quinoa are a few of the flavors and ingredients in the company’s new wave of soups, which includes an entire new line branded Campbell’s Go. Designed for more adventurous appetites, the six varieties of Campbell’s Go soups draw inspiration from global cuisines, with offerings such as Moroccan style chicken with chickpeas and coconut curry with chicken and shiitake mushrooms. Packaged in convenient, microwavable pouches adorned with eye-catching, whimsical graphics, the new line is targeted toward time-strapped 20-somethings.

“In many ways, these soups were made for millennials by millennials,” said Darren Serrao, vice-president of innovation and business development. “Our Campbell team traveled around the world, meeting with millennials and experiencing firsthand what excites them. Eating from food trucks, at their favorite neighborhood restaurants and in their own kitchens, we learned about their preference for bold, adventurous flavors in food.”

The company continues with this design for boldness with new offerings under many of its other brands. For example, the Chunky line has transformed traditional game-time fare into the form of soup. Varieties are: jerk chicken with rice and beans, Buffalo-style chicken, and chipotle chicken and corn chowder.

Layers of flavors may be detected in new Gourmet Bisques offerings such as sweet potato tomatillo and Thai tomato coconut. And the Slow Kettle Style line now includes crab and sweet corn chowder with flame roasted onions and cayenne pepper, and roasted chicken and chardonnay with fire-roasted tomatoes, aged Parmesan and pasta.

“With bolder, more vibrant flavors and contemporary packaging, we’re upping the ante with our new soup offerings,” said Mark Alexander, president of Campbell North America. “Campbell is reframing what soup means, with a variety of new choices that tempt the taste buds and fit the lifestyle of the millennial generation and beyond.”

Even the company’s condensed tomato soup, which has been made with the simplest of ingredients since 1897 and was an inspiration behind Andy Warhol’s pop art canvasses, has undergone some updates. Last year, the flavor was extended to include harvest orange tomato. The evolution continued this year with sun-ripened yellow tomato soup.

A gallery of innovations

Though Campbell’s is likely the most well-known brand in soup, The Original SoupMan is definitely the most famous soup shop. Opened in 1984 at the corner of 55th Street and 8th Avenue in New York, the shop was the inspiration for the famous Seinfeld “Soup” episode. After the show aired, the tiny storefront quickly became a worldwide destination.

Praised in The New York Times as “Art, not soup,” The Original SoupMan recently entered the retail scene in shelf-stable cartons. The initial offering includes lobster bisque, chicken noodle, lentil and tomato bisque. The company also distributes its products through the food service channel, including school lunch programs.

And then there’s the famous book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” It is amazing it took so long to become a brand of soup, but it will in early 2013. Chicken Soup for the Soul Foods, Greenwich, Conn., will launch a line of soups after the new year, beginning with the obvious: chicken noodle. Other varieties will include traditional favorites such as chicken and rice, creamy tomato and mushroom barley, as well as non-traditional blends including country style squash, sweet corn and chipotle, and black bean. The soups will be available in reusable and recyclable glass mason jars, building on the wholesome, comforting significance of the brand.

Soup creations may come frozen, too. The Bertolli brand from Unilever North America, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., markets a line of Meal Soups for Two, which are described as restaurant quality.

“Bertolli Premium Meal Soups for Two offer the heartiness and fresh taste of a soup that you would expect from an authentic Italian restaurant,” said Rachel Porges, brand manager. “Soups are a cornerstone of the Italian cuisine that Bertolli celebrates. With the new frozen soups, everyone can enjoy a warm, flavorful meal in just minutes — without pain-staking preparation and sacrificing flavor.”

Just like a painter can combine the three prime colors into an infinite rainbow of hues, soup formulators know no limits. Watch out Starbucks, soup galleries may become the next trendy “hot” gathering spot.