Breathing New Life into Pasta

Innovation—particularly centered on nutrition—will prove instrumental to growing the pasta category.

Shelf-stable pasta is a pantry staple across much of the United States, with over 84 percent household penetration. The overall category—including both brands and private label—is a $2.1 billion dollar business per IRI for the 52 weeks ending August 10, 2014. And this category is particularly strong in private label, with private label pasta accounting for a quarter of the market in terms of dollars and units, and over $578.1 million in annual sales.

But overall sales—across the board, for both national brands and private label—are flat or in slight decline. Nevertheless, a closer analysis of innovation in the sector reveals potential for sales growth. To that end, retailers and manufacturers today are seeking innovative approaches for new pasta products that can breathe new life into the category.

A Diversified Approach

“In a highly developed category, areas for growth will be around innovation and proper category management,” said Liz Housman, director of marketing for Dakota Growers Pasta Company. “There continues to be a lot of consumer interest in health, like added fiber and protein or reduced calories.” Adding health-and-wellness ingredients—like seeds, grains, vegetables, etc.—to pasta formulations boosts the nutritional profile and cultivates interest. “We have a good pulse on consumer needs around health and wellness. Plus, our research and development team is very knowledgeable when it comes to formulating pastas that have a nutritional boost while maintaining the functionality and desirable taste and texture.”

Another approach is to offer products in more convenient shapes, such as “pot-sized” long pastas. “Pot-size spaghetti is an alternative to the No. 1 selling pasta shape in America,” said Housman. “The shorter, 5-inch spaghetti easily fits into a smaller pot and is easier for young children to eat.” The products have been on the market for about a year and are starting to see strong incremental growth.

Such new, innovative products can add notable diversity to the pasta category—and the first step in updating shelf offerings involves a thorough analysis of a retailer’s current set, balancing national and existing store brands while identifying and capitalizing on new opportunities for private label within the context of a given retailer’s channel and shopper base. Such tactical category development requires concentrated insight and experience in the category, so retailers need to select their private label pasta supply-chain partners wisely in order to effectively revitalize pasta sales.

“With pasta’s popularity among all age groups and varying ethnic demographics, it’s important to continually analyze the category to ensure that the retailer is offering the right pasta shapes, the right size package and maintaining proper price gap and value relationship to the national brand,” said Housman. (For more-detailed insight into effectively managing the pasta category, see “Tactics for Successful Pasta Category Management.”)

Nutritional Details

Nutritionally enhanced pasta must still remain desirable in terms of flavor and mouthfeel—particularly with younger consumers. “USDA now requires schools to serve whole-grain pasta said Housman. “We improved upon our proprietary milling techniques to produce whole-wheat flour that has more-consistent particle sizes. This results in whole-grain pasta that is lighter in color, milder tasting and has better cooking quality.” As students grow more accustomed to eating whole-grain pasta at school, the door opens for easier introduction of the healthier products at home.

Among the national brands, noted Housman, one subcategory that is experiencing strong growth is veggie pasta. “The thought of eating spinach, broccoli or mushrooms is very unappealing to some, yet these vegetables are high sources of vitamins A, C and D, respectively,” she said. Veggie pasta is sought out by adults or parents with children who struggle to eat enough vegetables and get enough of the daily recommended vitamins. “We are adding real vitamins from real vegetables, and significantly increase the amount of vitamins across all of our veggie pasta products. It is ‘stealth health’ at its best. It’s also a product that is national-brand-better. We significantly increase the amount of vitamins across all of our pasta shapes when comparing Nutrition Facts panels to national brands. Each serving of veggie pasta includes at least 20 percent of the RDA of vitamins A, C, D, E, B1 and B6 derived from tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, spinach, beets and shiitake mushrooms—without changing the color or taste of pasta. People who are interested in health are reading package labels, and claims for ‘Rich in Antioxidants’ and ‘Excellent Source of 6 Vitamins’ are supported on the Nutrition Facts panel,” she said.

Reduced-calorie pasta, a newcomer to the pasta category, has 25 percent fewer calories than traditional pasta in a serving and is an excellent source of fiber. “This is accomplished by replacing some of the durum wheat semolina with resistant starch, which is not digestible and contributes fewer calories,” said Housman. “We have developed a reduced-calorie formula at Dakota Growers that has very similar taste and texture to regular pasta. We believe that there is a market for reduced-calorie pasta, as two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese and seeking products that don’t look or taste much different than the traditional product they enjoy.” (For more-detailed insight into the nutritional possibilities for pasta, see “Better-for-You Pasta Opportunities.”

Pasta will remain a staple of the American diet. But center-store products like shelf-stable pasta can significantly benefit from concentrated revitalization through streamlined set offerings highlighting NBB private label—and the merits of selecting the right supply-chain partner for this task cannot be understated.

Everyday semolina durum wheat dry pasta—in shapes and sizes shoppers have come to expect—will continue to generate significant revenue. But overall category sales will increase through astute addition of new, innovative pasta products that can serve as anchors for a new, diversified breed of pasta consumers.