Healthy, convenient and adventurous pasta

by Allison Sebolt
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Even though the low-carbohydrate movement is long gone, Dave Heimbecker, senior director of marketing for New World Pasta Co., Harrisburg, Pa., said there are still some lingering effects in the minds of consumers.

"Research shows one of the biggest barriers to consumers eating more pasta is their perception that all carbs are bad," Mr. Heimbecker said.

He said negative associations with carbohydrates show there is still a need to educate consumers that pasta is a "good" carbohydrate with a relatively low glycemic index.

Even with some elements of skepticism from consumers, there has been a significant amount of innovation in the market during the past six years.

"Everybody is working along those three platforms — health, convenience and culinary adventures," Mr. Heimbecker said. "That makes an opportunity to make a product that marries two of those together. If you can have a healthy product that tastes really good, then obviously you have a real winner."

For New World Pasta, this innovation has come from the Ronzoni brand. Specifically, three new lines — Healthy Harvest, Smart Taste and Bistro — all have been introduced in recent years.

Mr. Heimbeker said a company may choose one of two paths to deliver healthy attributes through pasta — to either use whole grains or bring health benefits to white pasta.

The Healthy Harvest line is a whole wheat blend combining durum and semolina and is also a source of omega-3 fatty acids. Mr. Heimbecker said the main concept behind the line is heart health. He noted whole grain and fiber are known to help with weight management and a healthy heart. He said offering omega-3 fatty acids fit along with this focus as the fatty acid is known to provide cardiovascular benefits.

"Every single whole wheat pasta out there has improved over time," Mr. Heimbecker said. "But when you make a big step to blend it so the consumer is not giving up on taste, that’s when we started to bring new consumers to the category."

The Smart Taste line from Ronzoni is an example of bringing benefits to white pasta that is enriched with fiber and calcium.

The most recently introduced Ronzoni line is Bistro, which are microwavable meals. The meals come in penne, linguine, rotini and spaghetti options.

"One of the things with dry pasta is you are typically not making it for lunch, it’s usually a dinnertime meal," Mr. Heimbecker said. "So that’s why we developed Bistro — a great opportunity for a lunch or snack that you can have in 90 seconds."

American Italian Pasta Co., Kansas City, also has a whole grain blend offering that is half whole wheat and half semolina pasta.

"A lot of consumers find a whole wheat product is just too dark or too strong of a flavor for the kids to eat," said Pat Regan, senior vice-president of marketing and sales strategy at AIPC. "This product is a nice way to get more whole grains in the diet, but it’s really acceptable to the whole family."

Amish Naturals, Inc., Holmesville, Ohio, has Fiber-Rich pasta that is a part of the company’s Hi-Fiber initiative with one serving of the pasta containing 12 grams of fiber, while Brattleboro, Vt.-based Putney Pasta recently introduced a skillet meal line designed to make cooking a pasta-based meal easy. The line includes both a chicken and shrimp option with penne. Putney also has convenient options in trays and frozen bags. The frozen bags focus on ravioli and tortellini.

Overall, Mr. Regan said convenience with pasta is all about quick preparation. He also added that value and the economy are factors driving the market.

"With everyone trying to pinch pennies and tighten down on the wallet a bit, this is really an economical meal … it’s economical and healthy at the same time," Mr. Regan said. "So we’re seeing some uptakes in the business as a result."

Mr. Regan said because of the economical considerations, AIPC has seen a growth in its private label business.

In terms of pasta shapes, Mr. Heimbecker and Mr. Regan both said spaghettis and thin spaghettis top the list with elbows and angel hair pastas also being popular. In fact, angel hair has grown significantly recently. Mr. Heimbecker said the challenge for New World Pasta is if a household begins using a pasta line such as Smart Taste that might have only five shapes to begin with, that household is soon going to want enough shapes for all occasions.

"(Pasta) is such a versatile foundation to so many different kinds of meals," Mr. Heimbecker said. "There are so many ethnic influences being incorporated into typical American diets — many of them include pasta."

Some new products from Barilla, the Chicago-based pasta maker, include Barilla Piccolini and Barilla Whole Grain. The Piccolini line are mini pastas designed for children, and the whole grain line is made with 51% whole wheat and has three times the fiber of traditional pastas.

Dry pasta has been receiving increased competition from products in other categories that are taking advantage of the versatility and adaptability of the food.

For example, Smart Ones from Heinz has a large number of pasta offerings, including Penne Pollo, Lasagna Florentine, Fettuccini Alfredo, Macaroni and Cheese, and Creamy Rigatoni with Chicken and Broccoli.

According to The Nielsen Co., total dry pasta sales for the year ended Nov. 1 in categories excluding Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. was $1,534,313,875, up 20% from the previous year.

"There will continue to be new products launched that will provide consumers with the opportunity to get more nutrients into their diet … whether it’s more calcium in your diet or other additives that consumers might be looking for that are new on the marketplace or are kind of trendy — I think you will see these things get added into pasta," Mr. Regan said.

Mr. Heimbecker said in the future there will be continued rapid growth in the number of new products launched and there will continue to be an increased focus on convenience with pasta-like products being included in categories outside of dry pasta.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, December 9, 2008, starting on Page 40. Click
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