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Soup-ology: The Science of Soup's Appeal

Taking stock of what makes soup so soothing and satisfying.

Source: CentralITAlliance/iStock

A warm bowl of soup is a classic comfort food, especially when the weather turns chilly or you have a cold. The strong association between soup and comfort hasn’t been lost on researchers. Here’s what studies show about the link between soup and a sense of well-being.

Soup may be a reminder of loving care

Did Mom or Dad give you chicken noodle soup when you had a cold as a child? Soup is often associated with being cared for. Over time, the food alone may conjure up feelings of comfort.

In one experiment, people either had chicken noodle soup or not before doing a word-completion task. Those who ate the soup and regarded it as comfort food were more likely to recall relationship words. This suggests that eating the soup may have put them in a more relationship-oriented frame of mind.

Soup warms the cockles of your heart

Our brains seem primed to make a connection between physical warmth and social warmth. Studies suggest that eating hot soup or even just holding a warm cup of it may increase positive feelings toward others—and that extends to other people whom you may see as being culturally different from yourself.

In one intriguing study, female college students in Japan who held a warm cup for a few minutes expressed more positive attitudes toward Chinese people, compared to students who held a cold cup. They also showed a greater willingness to help a Chinese individual.

Soup can be an appetizing meal starter

A well-made soup can be a flavorful appetizer. Ironically, if your appetizer course is too tasty, research suggests that it might make the main course seem less appealing by comparison. But you can get around that by pairing the soup with an entrée from a different cuisine.

Participants in one study ate an Italian pasta dish preceded by either a matching soup (Italian minestrone) or a non-matching soup (Thai tom kha). Good minestrone made them like the pasta less. But good tom kha didn’t have that effect and, in fact, enhanced enjoyment of the meal as a whole.

Soup can be a satisfying main course

Of course, you can also make soup the main event at your meal. Broth-based soups can fill you up with fewer calories than many other entrees.

Interestingly, research has shown that adding spicy cayenne pepper to tomato soup may enhance that satisfying sense of fullness and decrease hunger for at least an hour after eating. But be particularly aware of your eating choices during this time, because the pepper may also whet your appetite for sweet and fatty foods.

Soup is often healthy (but beware the halo effect)

Vegetable soup has a well-earned reputation for being packed with nutrients. An interesting study in the journal Appetite looked at how this reputation may affect eating behavior.

“In our study, 2,075 participants from the Island of Ireland and Denmark were given the following instruction: Imagine you’re only having vegetable soup for your dinner. How much would you eat? We found that soup portion size decisions were influenced by how healthy they perceived the soup to be,” says Moira Dean, Ph.D., a professor of consumer psychology and food security at Queen’s University Belfast.

“Specifically, those who viewed the soup as healthier chose a larger portion size,” Dean adds. “Furthermore, Danish participants who were more health-conscious chose larger soup portion sizes.”

The researchers say these findings may be due to a health halo effect, in which the food’s nutritious image led people to ignore other attributes, such as the extra calories in a supersized bowl. “It is important for consumers to be aware of the health halo effect, use the nutrition information panel on packaged foods, and not use a food’s healthy image as a license to eat more,” says Dean.

Soup doesn’t really need lots of salt to taste great

Restaurant and supermarket soups are often loaded with sodium. But research shows that reduced-sodium soups can taste just as good once you get used to them. One trick to boost your perception of saltiness without adding salt is to make sure you eat soup at the temperature you like best.

A fascinating study showed that people’s perception of saltiness in soup, including chicken broth, varied when nothing changed except the serving temperature. People rated soup as tasting saltiest when eaten at the temperature they preferred.

Bottom line: A warming, soothing cup of broth-based soup can be both nutritious and delicious—just one more reason for saying, “Soup’s on!”

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