Better-for-You Pasta Opportunities

New nutrition-forward pasta products can help retailers attract attention to the pasta category.

The industry swing toward increased formulation of better-for-you foods has gained significant traction over the past several years and shows no sign of abating. Key factors contributing to this growth include general nutritional enhancement of everyday foods—without a loss in eating quality—as well as foods formulated to help consumers with specific issues, such as reduced-calorie products and those targeted toward specific health conditions, like heart health. Organic products also have a role to play in this modern-day nutritional renaissance.

While the pasta category overall remains flat, better-for-you pasta pasta products are helping pick up the slack, driving shopper interest as sales incrementally ascend. Organic foods have inherent health-and-wellness positioning, and organic dry pasta sales were up 10.3 percent in dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending August 23, 2014 per Nielsen, now a $61.8 million segment.

Beyond organic, many other better-for-you pasta products have hit the market, including whole-grain and whole-wheat types, as well as those enhanced through added omega-3, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals like calcium, and other ingredients like vegetables and legumes that contribute their own nutritional merits. In our increasingly weight-conscious society, reduced-calorie pasta also makes sense.

“Pasta containing higher amounts of fiber and protein are the best fit for today’s health and wellness consumers,” said Alexis Freier, research & development and technical services manager for Dakota Growers Pasta Company. “Specialty pasta products—such as whole-grain, vegetable blend, etc.—are an easy way to sneak more nutritional benefits into your meals. We make it a priority when developing new formulas that we achieve taste and texture close to traditional pasta. With the right nutritional benefits and supporting marketing efforts, we can get new product trial. But the repeat purchase won’t be there if it doesn’t deliver on great taste, too.”

As retailers step into custom-formulation scenarios with their chosen manufacturing partner, significant potential exists to create unique, national-brand-better (NBB) better-for-you pasta products.

Formulation Tactics

While the selling point for better-for-you pasta is its nutritional merit, repeat sales will hinge on flavor, mouthfeel and other organoleptic qualities. This is particularly true for building acceptance with children.

“Often, adults are seeking products with a unique appearance, taste and texture,” said Freier. “They like, and will look for, alternative and new products. They like high-fiber pasta that looks like regular pasta.”

However, some consumers—and most notably children—do not want to feel like they are experiencing anything different in terms of eating qualities than they have grown accustomed to with their traditional pasta. Freier notes that Dakota Growers likes to call these types of pastas “stealth health” products, “because we are designing a product that looks, tastes and acts just like regular pasta, but with added benefits.”

The key to acceptance exists in balancing traditional pasta eating characteristics with nutritional components. “Even consumers seeking out better-for-you products want to feel like they are eating a product that is the same as traditional pasta,” said Freier. “We want to make whole-grain and multigrain products that are light in color, carry similar taste notes and have the al dente texture consumers expect from 100 percent semolina products.” She also notes that retailers should carry these products in their top pasta shapes to increase consumer acceptance.

Specialized Claims

Better-for-you pastas mesh nicely with consumers who are seeking products that specifically address their dietary needs.

“We have a number of new items in the pipeline that address heart health, an area that is especially important to baby boomers,” said Freier. “We also have developed products that provide plant sources of complete protein, which millennials tend to seek out. Each project that we take on in research and development seeks to achieve premium quality taste and unique nutrient or structure-function claims.” These pasta products can include beta-glucan and/or plant sterols, as well as alternative plant proteins like pea ingredients and ancient grains.

Consumers are also increasingly aware of the need to incorporate more servings of fruit and vegetables into their diets—both for themselves and their children. Vegetable vitamins—sometimes at levels nutritionally equivalent to a serving of vegetables, which can be clearly noted on the front of packaging—are a good fit for such pasta products.

Adult and childhood overweight and obesity are also top dietary concerns these days. Freier noted that a reduced-calorie pasta her company offers has 25 percent fewer calories than traditional pasta in a serving and can carry an “Excellent Source of Fiber” claim on the pack.

Maintaining a Competitive Advantag

In its December 2013 “Pasta in the U.S.” report, Euromonitor notes that while private label is a leader in the pasta category, innovation in health-and-wellness will prove key to maintaining that success over time. The report specifically singles out “better-for-you” pasta options as the key to keeping its edge in the category, often in tandem with competitive pricing.

Retailers have a significant opportunity to stride into NBB territory with their private label pasta set. By working with a manufacturing partner who has a targeted understanding of the pasta category—and the formulation chops to back it up—retailers can create unique pasta products that become anchors for the category, making the pasta aisle a regular destination and increasing overall sales.