Instant soup has come a long way since the days when the choice was a packet of Lipton or Knorr, or maybe a doctored-up bowl made from a bouillon cube. In the past decade or so, the microwave has spawned countless variations on the cup-a-soup theme, and ramen noodles have entered the vocabulary of just about every shopper (especially thrifty students).

Even the health food stores have gotten into the act, offering a variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian varieties that promise both interesting ingredients (black beans, leeks) and a reduction in fat and sodium.

We settled on plain old chicken and noodle (or chicken-flavored) for our test, though, and restricted the entries to those that could be made by adding boiling water to the container in which they were packaged (no stovetop or microwave cooking, the way many of the ramen packets are prepared). We took note of the soup's appearance, how easy it was to make and jotted down the all-important sodium count. For the most part, these soups are loaded with salt--even the ones whose labels scream "healthy."

EXCEPTIONAL:

MARUCHAN INSTANT LUNCH Let's face it: Most of us are in it for the noodles when we turn to a quick soup, and Maruchan doesn't let you down. Its Ramen Noodles With Vegetables has the promised chicken-flavored broth, but the best part of this product is all those great noodles. (In fact, you'd be better off using a fork--or chopsticks--than a spoon with this one.) Somehow, Maruchan doesn't come off as tasting overly salty, either, although the sodium count--a whopping 1,220 milligrams, or about half the daily recommended intake--is enough to make you gasp. (About $1 for two 2.25-ounce cups.) Available at most supermarkets.

NISSIN CUP NOODLES This Maruchan look-alike came in a close second, falling a bit short on the chicken flavor. But there were plenty of those incredibly long--and hard to eat--noodles, as well as the requisite high level of sodium (1,170 milligrams). (About $1 for two 2.25-ounce cups.) Available at most supermarkets.

ACCEPTABLE:

DR. McDOUGALL'S The label on this cute little cup makes a lot of promises--"New, Yummy, 99 Percent Fat Free, Vegetarian, No Added Oil"--but the soup itself is pretty average. The Baked--Not Fried--Ramen Noodles weren't bad, but the chicken-flavored broth tasted weak. Not too salty, though, with "just" 480 milligrams of sodium. (About $1.10 for 1.5 ounces) Available at Shoppers Food Warehouse.

HEALTH VALLEY This one had the prettiest packaging by far, but the Chicken Flavored Noodles With Vegetables turned out to be as bland as bland can be. Then again, it's also fat-free and had the lowest sodium count--270 milligrams--of any of the 10 soups we tried. (About $1.40 for 1.98 ounces) Available at Fresh Fields, Safeway and Shoppers Food Warehouse.

KNORR TASTEBREAKS Yellow seems to be a theme with this venerable soup brand, from its trademark packaging to the Chicken Flavor Noodle broth itself, which had such a canary hue that we searched the ingredients list for the culprit, which turned out to be turmeric. And those 910 milligrams of sodium gave this soup a decidedly salty edge. (About $1.25 for 1.6 ounces) Available at most supermarkets.

SAPPORO ICHIBAN We had high hopes for this Oriental Noodle Soup, given its Japanese packaging and abundance of noodles. But the high sodium count (1,580 milligrams) got old after a while, as did the slight artificial taste. (About 85 cents for 2.25 ounces) Available at Daruma Japan Market, Bethesda.

UNACCEPTABLE:

FANTASTIC The Vegetarian Chicken-Free Ramen Noodles were anything but fantastic, even considering that the noodles were organic. (About $1 for 1.5 ounces) Available at most supermarkets.

MRS. MANISCHEWITZ Loved the picture of Mrs. M on the label, but the soup itself, Chicken Noodle (With No Chicken Added), was just dreadful. (About $1.10 for 1.25 ounces) Available at Giant and Shoppers Food Warehouse.

NILE SPICE We still can't figure out what gave the Chicken Flavored Vegetable Soup its hideous green color. As for the flavor, it seemed to come from lots and lots of pepper. (About $1 for 1.98 ounces) Available at most supermarkets.

SOUPER Adding a separate package of pure grease to the Chicken Flavor Bowl Ramen should have been a tip-off that this wasn't going to be the best instant soup around. And it isn't, by a long shot. (About $1.20 for 3 ounces) Available at Safeway.