What is soup? I know what you’re thinking: it’s soup. Yes, that’s true. Soup is soup. But what is “soup”? I know what you’re thinking: it’s soup. Ugh, we could do this all day. Here’s what I’m asking you: Is soup a food or a beverage?
Soup is liquid, but it is typically eaten with utensils. It’s usually savory, but it can be placed in a thermos and taken on a camping trip for periodic sipping. It can have food chunks, but around those food chunks? Liquid. It is nutrient-rich, but so is juice. Is juice a food? I think not all but most would agree that it is not.
Please don’t judge me for this, but I think it’s important to begin by telling you that Webster’s dictionary defines soup as “a liquid food.” The word itself (“soup”) is of Germanic origin; it became the Latin suppa, meaning the piece of bread used to soak up a broth, which became the French soupe, meaning soup. As a source of nourishment, soup has existed across all cultures essentially forever, give or take. A 2010 study of 46,000-year-old Neanderthal teeth fossils shows that even those guys cooked plant foods to make them more easily digestible, in a way that was likely soup-like.
But what is soup?
Campbell’s memorable ‘70s- and ‘80s-era advertising slogan would have you believe “Soup Is Good Food.” (Jello Biafra would also have you believe “Soup Is Good Food,” but he would have you believe it in a sardonic, anti-capitalist way that does not help with our food vs. beverage discussion particularly.) But many remain unconvinced, or at least confused. Soup detectives have asked the public “is soup a food or a beverage?” on Yahoo Answers, Reddit, Quora, Answers.com — pretty much all of the places you visit online when you need to find the answer to one of life’s many mysteries. The answers are, in general, very good. “Soup is a food. Most beverages are also food. Wrap your brain around that! I think that the only beverage that isn't a food is water,” Ryan answered on Yahoo. Fuck! “Soup is a food you drink,” bulletproofme said on Reddit, blowing my mind. Keyl Edwards, Software Engineer at Microsoft (2012-present), told Quora: “food… Just cause its [sic] a liquid doesnt [sic] make it a beverage by that logic liquid anti-freeze is a great beverage.” Damn. He’s right.
But what does someone who loves soup think? I’d like to offer into evidence a piece of writing from Claire of ilovesoup.net, whose bio reads, in part, “I simply love soup.” In the “History of Soup” section of her website she writes: “While soup’s defining characteristic is its liquid, etiquette experts say we eat soup — as opposed to drinking it — because it is part of the meal.” She doesn’t have a link out to exactly where she found these etiquette experts, but I trust her not to speak falsely about her beloved soup.
Though most seem to be leaning toward “food,” our study is, of course, inconclusive so far. Maybe we should think of it more physiologically. Once inside the body, does soup behave in a way that offers any evidence towards classifying it as a food or a beverage?
A study published in The Journal of Nutrition in 2012 found blending solid food and liquid together keeps you feeling full longer than ingesting them separately. One of the study’s authors, Robin Spiller, the director of biomedical research at the Nottingham Digestive Diseases Centre, spoke with The Atlantic earlier this year about the digestion of food and liquid:
What we showed is that food separates in layers in the stomach,” said Spiller. Until pretty recently, that was only an assumption. “If, for example, you take a dense material like rice and a glass of water, the rice will sink into the dependent part of the stomach. Then the water will seep out. That means that when you stop ingesting your meal, the size of your stomach will go down much faster than had you mixed the rice and the water up into a homogenous gruel.
It gets much more complicated as the Atlantic piece goes on, and you can read it yourself if you want, I don’t care, but I think we can extrapolate from this finding that there is a digestive difference between a thin broth and a thicker soup. Or can we? I texted James Hamblin, who wrote the excerpted Atlantic piece and who is also a doctor and who is, full disclosure, also my friend, and that is why I could text him: “Can we extrapolate from this piece that there is a digestive difference between a thin broth and a thicker soup?” He texted me back:
The nutrient content matters, too. So, I forget how much I mention this in the article but when you ingest a calorie-dense liquid you’ll digest it more slowly than water. It’s not just about the actual density or viscosity of the fluid. Like bone broth has fat in it, which is calorie dense, and so it’ll be digested more slowly than water, even if they’d seem to pour into a glass at the same rate.
Hm. Okay. So is it all food, then, or what? Was the guy from Yahoo Answers right when he said that water is the only non-food, even though we all laughed in his face when he said it? Do we have to apologize to him now? Having this information felt much more confusing than when I had close to no information at all, so to help me understand further, I called Amy Bentley, a food historian and professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. I asked her, is soup a food or a beverage? And, please, if she might be so kind to tell me — what is broth?
“There’s a continuum,” she said. “In my class we talk about this topic and I use the example of tomatoes. There’s a continuum of thin to thick and diluted to concentrated flavor. So, if you had a tomato continuum the one side would be tomato water or tomato essence.” This would be a thin, tomato-y steam, or water-type liquid with some tomato flavor. “Those very thin essences of flavor are categorized as drinks mostly.” But moving along the continuum, to broth, to purees, to something chunkier, shows a shift from beverage to food. “And once you move to some chunks in the soup, I think then it really becomes a food.”
She compared this chunkier stew-soup to a thinner bone broth, since both are thought of as “nourishing” in a traditional food-like sense. “I think [whether bone broth is considered a food or a beverage] really depends on how it’s framed and marketed. The current bone broth craze is marketing broth as a drink, as a substitute for coffee or tea.”
Interesting. For more insight, I reached out to two of the leaders of the current bone broth craze: Jordan Feldman, co-founder of the New York City bone broth hotspot Springbone, and Marco Canora, chef and founder of the other New York City bone broth hotspot Brodo.
“I would consider broth a beverage,” Feldman said. “The broth that we serve is generally a clear broth, so, unless someone specifically requests, there is no solid food in it. So, you sip on it. And we also sell it in a coffee cup. It has a regular coffee lid, and people will usually take it and walk outside, and sip on it just like you would sip on a coffee. So we definitely think of it as a beverage.”
“I consider it both,” Canora said, one-upping Feldman in a way that will no doubt cause controversy in the New York City bone broth community, and perhaps even the bone broth community nationwide. “It’s dependent on use case. I like to say it's a sippable food, a meal replacement or a hot beverage substitute.”
But what about soup? If broth can be a beverage, can non-broth soup? “Broth, due to its thinness, feels more like a beverage than a puréed vegetable based soup, which can more easily feel like a food,” Canora said. “Having said that, the high protein content of broth in the form of collagen and amino acid structure makes a strong case for it being a nutrient dense, food substitute.”
“As it moves into soup,” Feldman said, “I would start to consider it a food, just because soup is typically more substantial. It’s thicker and richer, or it will have solids in it. And it’s much more common to have soup either as a meal or as part of a meal, whereas broth is either a standalone snack or something that accompanies a meal.”
Feldman pointed out that you would never “wash down” a piece of food with a soup, as you would with a beverage like juice, soda, or, yes, bone broth. He said the distinction comes from the soup’s thickness, and that a smoothie was a similar case — you would never “wash” something “down” with a smoothie. But then, I asked, is a smoothie a food?
After a long pause (a byproduct of my journalistic instincts and ability to ask the hard questions) he responded. “My instinct is to say it’s a drink, because you drink it with a straw. But...I don’t know. I think it’s somewhere in between.”
Oh, Jordan Feldman of Springbone! Once again, this is all very confusing. Does it really just depend on how the liquid substance is marketed to us? At the end of my conversation with Bentley, she said, essentially, yes. “Sometimes tomato soup is served in a mug and it’s drunk. So, if it’s marketed and framed like that, and you offer someone a mug of soup with no spoon, you can conceive of it as a drink. But if it’s served in a bowl with a spoon, then it’s marked as a food.”
Because the Campbell’s “Soup Is Good Food” campaign that I mentioned 100 years ago when this essay began is the most prominent food-specific soup campaign I can think of, I reached out to Campbell Soup Company’s resident historian Sarah Rice to see if the company had ever marketed the product specifically as something other than food. (At this point you are maybe wondering if I spoke to too many people for this piece. Please mind your own business!)
Would you like to take a guess about whether or not Campbell’s had marketed soup specifically as something other than food at any point in their 150-year history? I’ll give you a moment.
They had! Oh, my god. I really wasn’t expecting this, but Rice provided a number of ads — the earliest in 1912 and the latest in 1972 — in which Campbell’s Soups were marketed specifically as beverages! An ad from 1914 shows a group of fancy old-timey women in big fancy hats, standing around, sipping from fancy little cups, as the text underneath boasts that Campbell’s Tomato Soup is “as easily prepared as a cup of tea, and far more wholesome and satisfying. Wouldn’t your guests appreciate a novelty so pleasing? Try it and see.”
Another ad from 1972 shows a little boy with a two-handled baby’s mug full of soup. “Campbell’s makes soups for two-fisted drinkers,” the copy reads. Drinkers!
It was, clearly, now time to request an official position from Campbell’s. Is soup a good food, or is it for drinking? I asked, and they provided what I think you’ll agree is a quite unexpected response.
“We accept the fact that you want to relegate soup into one category – food or beverage. But we think it’s crazy to tell you what we think soup is. You see soup how you want to see it…as a nourishing meal at home, or a mobile snack on-the-go. In the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions. But what we found is soup is…
-Great tasting and complex
-Seen as providing positive health & nutrition
-Infused with freshness
Soup has an emotional connection that’s similar to wine and ice cream. In a recent survey, consumers said:
-“It’s there when you’re down”
-“It takes me back to being a kid”
-“It hasn’t changed, in a world where everything has changed”
Does that answer your question?”
Oh, Campbell’s! I refuse to consider either the Breakfast Club or the potentially dark politics of the opinion “It hasn’t changed, in a world where everything has changed” in what is already a fraught discussion about soup! But within the John Hughesian statement, Campbell’s does make a good point about the undefinable aspects of soup. It is malleable, it exists beyond the the typical boundaries our of binary food culture. It modulates, depending on whether you put it in a bowl or a mug. Like everything, you have to consider who is selling it to you and whether their motive is nefarious, pure, or in-between. It is very confusing. It can be anything, if we restrict our definition of “anything” to “permutations on the drink/food continuum.”
So, what is soup?
I know what you’re thinking: it’s soup.