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Embracing the Pasta-bilities

While traditional carbs hold strong, innovation is keeping the category on its toes
Photograph: Shutterstock

There are few things as ubiquitous in the American home as rice and pasta. They’re blank slates that pair with anything from pesto to stir-fried vegetables, and they’re a staple of shopping baskets.

But these are two categories that, while holding firm in their traditional forms, are reinventing, with established brands bringing out new lines and new companies offering spinoff styles and types.

According to WGB’s Chicago-based sister research firm Technomic, more than 50% of consumers eat pasta at least once a week, so “pasta consumption is still strong in spite of trends like ancient grains,” says Anne Mills, senior manager of consumer insights, who points out that consumers eat pasta more often than they eat pizza.

Fullgreen

Photograph courtesy of Fullgreen

And rice is not letting the side down, either. According to a recent study published by Fact.MR, the global market for rice is expected to grow 7% this year compared to last year. The study believes this growth comes down to more people eating meat-free diets, as well as a recent surge in demand for rice protein.

However, both pasta and rice are part of an ingredient-based meal consumers cook at home. Given the decline in from-scratch home cooking, both pasta and rice are ripe for innovation. And it’s coming, both in new lines from giants such as Barilla and Uncle Ben’s, as well as from lesser-known, under-the-radar companies. Because of the decline in from-scratch cooking, and the time-pressed nature of most consumers’ lives, faster-to-cook types of pasta and rice are also making headway, such as Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice (cooked in 90 seconds) and Barilla’s Ready Pasta (60 seconds).

Add in consumers’ increasingly sophisticated palates from years of restaurant food, and it’s easy to see why products such as Uncle Ben’s jambalaya flavored rice or Riceland’s Rice ’N Easy Spanish rice make sense.

“Aromatic rice varieties have taken off over the last couple of years,” says Ashten Adamson, spokesman for Stuttgart, Ark.-based Riceland. “Consumers want something … to elevate their home-cooked meals or mimic dishes seen in their favorite restaurants.”

“There is also a lot of excitement around new plant-based protein pastas, such as those made with chickpeas or lentils,” to satisfy the growing demand for plant-based foods, says Liz Housman, spokesperson for the National Pasta Association, Washington, D.C., and the Dakota Growers Pasta Co., Carrington, N.D.

“You’re starting to see vegetables being promoted as almost pasta alternatives,” says Tom Vierhile, VP of strategic insights, North America, for Innova Market Insights, based in The Netherlands. “That’s an admission that the pasta and rice makers are a little exposed when it comes to nutrition because, with concerns about things like celiac disease, their products are rich in gluten.”

And bronze cut pasta is coming into its own. “There has been a recent renaissance among some consumers who distinguish pastas made with bronze dies as premium quality,” Housman says. “American pasta manufacturers have responded, introducing new line extensions of bronze-cut pastas, as well as private brands launching ultrapremium bronze-cut pasta offerings, many of which are imported from Italy.” 

Noodling Hot Pasta and Rice Trends 

  • Many grocery stores are too siloed to really capitalize on pasta, says Jim Hertel, SVP of Inmar Analytics, Chicago. Thinking more about cross merchandising (pasta with jarred sauce and salad), or packaging everything into a meal kit, for which the consumer does minimal prep, is an easy way around this. “You give the consumer an opportunity to own it,” he says. Supermarkets “have to think beyond just an ingredient to keep pace with the consumer of today and tomorrow.”
  • According to the National Pasta Association, private label brands are driving the most growth—up more than 2% over last year, according to Nielsen. “Having a tiered private label program for pasta gives grocery stores the chance to create additional loyalty,” says Hertel. For example, Safeway has three private label lines in its pasta category (Signature Select, O Organics and Signature Reserve). “This allows you to limit the discounts to the lower-tier SKUs and improve your price image, but not touch your national brand equivalent private label.”
  • The big brands are coming up with line extensions to remain appealing. Barilla’s offerings include red lentil or chickpea pastas, and Veggie, which contains one full serving of vegetables per 3.5-ounce portion, according to the company. Ronzoni has its SuperGreens line (enriched with five veggies) and its Garden Delight Veggie line (with one serving of vegetables in every 4-ounce portion). “Barilla does a good job of creating news in a category that seems awfully boring,” says Gary Stibel, founder and CEO of New England Consulting Group, Westport, Conn.
  • “The branded manufacturers have been clever because it’s harder to make private label products in niches like protein pasta or veggie pasta,” says Neil Stern, senior partner with McMillan Doolittle, Chicago. “So the more innovation that occurs in the category, the harder it is for private label to follow. It leaves room for manufacturers to be creative in flavor and innovation.”
  • Rice is not necessarily rice anymore, with a number of companies launching riced vegetables, which consumers are using in place of the traditional carbohydrate. Large companies such as Green Giant have launched products such as microwavable riced butternut squash and beets (both frozen). Smaller manufacturers such as PictSweet Farms have a riced cauliflower (frozen), while Fullgreen offers shelf-stable riced cauliflower in two flavor profiles, along with riced broccoli and riced sweet potato.
  • And in pasta, Green Giant has Veggie Spirals, a frozen line of zucchini, carrot, beets and butternut squash. Birds Eye has Veggie Made, 100% “spaghetti style” vegetable pasta made from zucchini and lentils with marinara sauce or olive oil. However, these products are merchandised in the freezer aisle, says Stern, and retailers do a poor job of guiding shoppers to that category from the rice and pasta aisle. ”A smart retailer would do a better job of thinking through meal solutions with customers, versus organizing by category,” he says. “They should be directing people to other categories, even though it’s difficult to coordinate and not easy to pull off.”
  • When rice is really a carbohydrate, it’s often got a value-add, says Stern. This could be in the form of flavors, spices, such as Uncle Ben’s Flavor Infusions line or Rice ’N Easy from Riceland, which has a chicken-flavored variety, among others. “It’s adding enough that’s interesting to get consumers back,” Stern says. “It allows [consumers] to be adventuresome while also being safe. And it’s easy. It’s continuing value-add.”
  • For pasta, niche companies are challenging the giants. There’s The Only Bean’s soybean spaghetti, edamame fettuccine and black bean versions of both; Cybele’s Free to Eat vegetable-based pastas such as green lentil, cauliflower and parsnip rotini and green lentil, pumpkin and butternut squash; and NuLo Foods’ superfood rice fusilli with goji berries and turmeric. “These smaller companies have the potential to disrupt the category,” Vierhile says. “This was a surprise for a company like Barilla, which finds it’s slicing away a little bit of its business.”
  • Bronze-cut pasta is nothing new, but sales of it are growing. According to Innova Insights, bronze-cut pasta saw compound annual growth rates of 12% from 2016 to 2018. Ronzoni’s Thick and Hearty line’s boxes boast “holds more sauce,” while Barilla’s Collezione boxes are more subtle, stating, “bronze cut” in smaller letters.

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