Food Reviews
Category Review - Pasta

Pasta Perceptions

October 12, 2012
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No one can say pasta manufacturers lack imagination.

Of course, pasta makers traditionally have impressed with the way they turn basically one ingredient — wheat — into literally hundreds of shapes and forms. But

Eye on The National Brands

As you might expect, whole-grain and “better-for-you” styles of pasta are being adapted by the national brands as well. Barilla now offers a White Fiber pasta, which features three times more fiber than regular pasta and 30 percent of the daily recommendation of while grains per 3.5 ounce serving. But unlike other whole grain offerings on the market (and from Barilla), the White Fiber line looks and tastes like a traditional white pasta … In an effort to help consumers with portion control, Ronzoni offers single-servings of pasta in boil-in-the-bag packaging. Each 3 oz. pouch makes 1 ¼ cups of pasta in three minutes when dropped in boiling water. Ronzoni also offers its Quick Cook pasta (ready in three minutes) in a box as well as the bag … Buitoni is also trying to make things easier for the home chef with its Complete Meals for Two. It added Chicken Mushroom Risotto and Chicken Fiorentina with Asiago Cream Sauce to its five existing flavors in its frozen packaged meals.

the $5 billion pasta category now is being reshaped by countless variations of the product with a new emphasis on “better-for-you” options like whole wheat, high-fiber, gluten-free, low-carb and vegetable.

But although that creativity has led to many small-scale successes, it hasn’t helped the category as a whole break out from very slow growth the last several years. According to Mintel International Group Ltd., Chicago, the category declined by 2.2 percent in 2010. In 2011, it rose 2.1 percent, and Mintel forecasts for the next five years predict moderate growth between 3 percent and 5 percent each year.

But according to Nielsen figures, the pasta category is down 5 percent this year.

“(The category) is kind of in rough shape,” says Mike Cunningham, national sales manager/private label for Viterra in St. Louis Park, Minn. “It’s a pretty significant drop for a category this big. Private label is the saving grace at this point. National brands are down even more.”

That’s surprising many people, as pasta traditionally does well in a down economy. It’s relatively cheap, easy to cook, and offers almost endless options for consumers. The category even has been able to adapt to low-carb and gluten-free trends, which is pretty impressive considering the product is traditionally high in carbs and filled with gluten.

Yet as the offerings continue to increase, it doesn’t seem as though manufacturers have yet to hit the sweet spot with consumers. According to a 2012 Mintel report, “Fickle consumers seem to be trying to figure out what products they want to incorporate into their healthful diets, and manufacturers have had some difficulty trying to meet their needs. However crowded the category may be, there is clearly room for more products that better fit what consumers are looking for, with additional focus on health benefits, particularly targeting families with children, a strategic group for this category.”

Perhaps this disconnect comes from consumers who want a product to hit all the major selling points from a health standpoint — whole grains, lower-carbs, higher fiber, lower calorie — and yet look and taste like traditional pasta.

That seems to be the direction manufacturers are heading — and on a smaller scale finding success, even when the category is struggling.

Eat Your Vegetables

Although flavored pasta is nothing new, more and more manufacturers are adding vegetables to their product but attempting to eliminate the flavor. In other words, eat your veggies but enjoy your old-fashioned pasta.


“We do a unique vegetable pasta that’s whole grain,” says Cunningham, referring to his company’s VeggieServe line. “It’s a traditional semolina pasta with vegetables added, but there’s no taste or smell. It doesn’t taste like cauliflower.”

Dry macaroni and cheese, which is the one segment of the pasta category that has grown the past two years, has had success making the same appeal by incorporating healthier ingredients into its product. Sales in this segment rose 7.4 percent from 2009 to 2011.

According to Mintel, sales are expected to continue to grow, “particularly when the formula of ‘stealth health’ is married with fun, such as through organic and whole grain product claims, and products that add extra health benefits, such as vegetables.”

The increased media focus on health concerns like childhood obesity, heart disease and diabetes is likely to continue to drive consumers to products with more healthful attributes. One benefit of private label products is that they’ve already gained a foothold in the category, which has allowed consumers to be more open to trying new products.

“When you look at the numbers, private label is either No. 1 or No. 2 in 47 out of 52 markets,” Cunningham says. “It has a very high penetration in the category.”

Marketing opportunities

Although pasta prices remain low to attract value-conscious consumers, retailers do benefit from high related-item sales associated with the product. People

Enlarge Image
Pasta chart

don’t eat pasta by itself — they add meat, cheese, vegetables, tomato sauce, olive oil, pesto, etc.

“We’re seeing folks looking for alternative ways to advertise,” Cunningham says. “I think we can see better related-item sales than we have.

“Consumers are very focused on food now. Because of the Food Network and shows like the Iron Chef, it’s a different type of consumer ... There are great merchandising opportunities there."

“Consumers are very focused on food now. Because of the Food Network and shows like the Iron Chef, it’s a different type of consumer. It’s not like grandma cooking recipes from scratch. They’re looking for recipes and ideas to make something unique. There are great merchandising opportunities there.”

Hope on the Horizon

Although category innovation hopefully will better target consumers with perhaps unrealistic expectations, another indiscriminate event actually might have more impact in the short term.

This year’s drought has wreaked havoc on the corn crop, which is expected to increase corn prices this year. That, in turn, likely will raise prices on anything containing corn (or corn-fed) at grocery. Pasta might seem like even more of a bargain, particularly in an economy that refuses to recover.

But in the long term, pasta has a lot of things going for it. It’s a broad category, reaching 92 percent of American homes. Italian still is the No. 1 ethnic food in the United States. And its broad appeal reaches a variety of consumers.

“It’s an item that fits a wide range of folks,” Cunningham says. “It’s eaten by the high-end gourmet who watches cooking shows, but also by those who are trying to make ends meet and create an economic meal. There are very good reasons why pasta is still a strong category.”

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