A perfect match

Consumers continue to flock to the pasta and pasta sauce aisle, looking for nutritious ways to feed their families while sticking to their budgets.

By Craig Levittt

Whether served as an entrée or side dish, a plate of pasta with sauce remains standard fare on many dinner tables. While con­sumers continue to gravitate toward this economical meal option, some shop­pers are making healthier choices such as whole wheat  pasta and low-sodium sauces.

“When people are not going out as much, pasta and pasta sauce benefit, because you can make a great meal for a family of four for under $10,” says Edward Salzano, executive vice president and COO of Fairport, N.Y.-based LiDestri Food & Bev­erage, maker of Francesco Rinaldi pasta sauce. “That certainly helps [these] segments. When people are going out more, these categories might not do as well.”

According to Chicago-based Sym­ph­onyIRI Group, unit sales of pasta at food, drug and mass outlets, excluding Wal­mart, were up more than 2% for the 52-week period ended March 20. Dollar sales were down about 1.5%, though the category still accounts for nearly $1.5 billion in total sales. Sales on the sauce side remained relatively flat, down 0.8% on the dollar side (accounting for more than $1.6 billion in sales), and up 0.5% on unit sales.

Industry observers are quick to point out that many individual segments, particularly in the pasta category, are faring quite well. Officials from the National Pasta Assoc­iation, the Washington D.C.-based trade association for the U.S. pasta industry, say that while white pasta sales may be declining about 2% a year, healthy options, such as whole wheat and gluten-free pastas, are growing about 15% and represent 15% of category sales.

Getting healthy

Ray Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for Effingham, Ill.-based Hodgson Mill, says that given all the press on health and wellness and the need for gluten-free products, a new consumer need is being met. He adds it is only natural that products that meet these needs continue to grow and that Hodgson Mill is one of the forerunners.

“Hodgson Mill is proud to continue to be a leader in whole wheat pastas sales,” says Martin. “We attribute that to the quality of our product that’s allowed us to hold that position. The addition of the gluten-free pastas has been great. That business is really growing. The addition of flax to that product gives it a much better bite and mouth feel than most other gluten-free offerings. If you include our organic line, we are one of the very few that can offer pastas to hit these multiple demographics.”

Healthier-for-you sauces are also gaining in popularity. LiDestri Food & Beverage recently introduced its Francesco Rinaldi To Be Healthy line of pasta sauces. The line features four flavors: tomato & basil, garlic & onion, garden vegetable and spicy marinara. The sauces are fortified with sustainable omega-3 from seaweed, so there is no mercury or fishy taste, according to company officials. They also have re­duced sodium and no sugar added, which Salzano says gives them a different taste profile than the traditional Fran­cesco Rinaldi product line.

“We have had, for about 25 years, a Francesco Rinaldi product with no salt or sugar added and that was very well accepted,” says Salzano. “Originally it was primarily for consumers that had dietary constrictions. Now we see as that type of product expands we get more and more requests from consumers saying ‘I don’t need a no-salt product, but is there something we could have with just a little bit? I don’t want a product without any sugar, but is there something that is not as sweet?’ People are trying to balance that lifestyle and they are becoming more and more label conscious.”

Another growth opportunity for retailers is with white sauces. While the entire sauce category has a nearly 80% household penetration rate, white sauce has only 20%. Observers say that as more consumers realize they can replicate restaurant quality meals at home, Alfredo sauces will continue to do well. Salzano says consumers are using these sauces not only on pasta, but other types of dishes as well, including rice, protein and even vegetables and the Francesco Rinaldi Alfredo sauce is selling well.

The new Classico Light Creamy Alfredo sauces from H.J. Heinz Co. combines consumers desire for better-for-you products and the growing popularity of white sauce. Rick Gray, senior brand manger for Classico Pasta Sauce, says the sauce has 50% less fat and 45% fewer calories than the leading brands. The Pittsburgh-based company also offers two organics sauces, spinach and garlic and tomato, herbs and spices.

“Consumers are always looking for convenient ways to make a dinner that the family will love,” says Gray. “Jarred pasta sauce, whether tomato-based or cream-based, can serve as a great ingredient in many dishes.”

Going upscale

Artisan pasta is another growth area, say observers. Lisa Kartzman, director of public relations for American Roland Food Corp., says the New York-based company has had success with the launch of its line of Don Bruno artisan pasta. The line includes: rigatoni, spaghettoni, paccheri, penne, fusilloni, trine, farfalle tricolore, trecce dell’orto, gomitoni and gnocchi.

“The [health trend] is very big and continues to grow but people are still eating pasta and as specialty food continues to expand people are looking for artisan pasta—because they understand it,” says Kartzman. There has been a lot written about how nice our pasta is, how the sauce clings to it because it is bronze die cut and slowly dried instead of quick dried. I think the category still has some growth to it.”

At about twice the price of traditional pasta, Kartzman says the target consumer for Don Bruno pasta is not the average shopper looking for value and a quick easy meal. Rather it is the consumer that is still spending a certain amount of money on specialty foods. “These are educated consumers we are targeting and who are buying the product,” she says. “We are not going to attract a mom looking to feed a family of four. These are foodies looking for our pasta.”

Along with the pasta, American Roland also launched a line of Don Bruno pasta sauces. The line consists of a marinara, vodka, Sicilian gravy and arrabbiata. The sauces are intentionally priced in between the high end and commodity sauces. “We want to find our own niche,” says Kartzman. “Sauce is very much like pasta, you can get lost. Our hope is that people will taste our sauce and come back.”

While the Don Bruno products cater to foodies, Lucini Italia targets singles and small families. The Miami-based company recently launched a line of sauces that comes in a 13.5-ounce heatable pouch. The sauces are available in spicy tomato, tomato basil and Tuscan marinara with roasted garlic.

“Consistent feedback from our customers has been the size of [sauce] jars are too big for some customers,” says David Neuman, president of Lucini Italia. “We have responded to this concern with our innovative, BPA-free heatable pouch of our award wining sauce. We anticipate others in the category will be doing the same.”

Carbs count

Forgive pasta makers and suppliers if they turn a scornful eye on Robert Atkins, creator of the low/no carbohydrate intake diet.

In an effort to debunk the belief that pasta is bad for you, the National Pasta Association (NPA), based in Washington, D.C., has launched its 2011 communications program, “Pasta Fits.” The initiative is intended to educate consumers on enjoying pasta as part of a nutritious diet and focuses on the importance of carbohydrates as part of a balanced healthy diet.

“Americans love pasta, but fad diets and misinformation have led to consumer confusion. We are eager to kickoff the ‘Pasta Fits’ program to educate consumers about the great benefits of pasta,” says Peter Smith, chairman of NPA and president and CEO of Ebro North America. “We have created a comprehensive program to set the record straight—pasta is an important and healthy part of any eating plan. We’ll provide consumers with knowledge and tools to enjoy pasta meals knowing that the nutritional value is as great as the taste.”

The “Pasta Fits” campaign seeks to reinforce to consumers the message that pasta fits their lifestyle, budget and diet. Included in the messaging is that, as a complex carbohydrate, pasta is an economical, healthy, family-pleasing meal. NPA is currently developing a website, www.pastafits.com, which will feature cooking tips and healthy recipes with nutritional analysis, contests and other consumer-engaging elements. They are also working with the authors of The Carb Lovers Diet book to educate consumers on how pasta fits into their healthy eating plan.

Using scientific research that supports the benefits of diets that include carbohydrates such as pasta for weight control, the “Pasta Fits” program will educate consumers about why pasta and other carbohydrates are vital to a healthy lifestyle. Messages like pasta boosts energy, satisfies hunger, tastes great and can be prepared in delicious, low-calorie recipes will be delivered.

“There have been a number of diet trends that severely limit carbohydrate intake in favor of protein, but research shows that long term weight control is not about proteins vs. carbs, but about energy balance,” says Sarah Wally, registered dietician and consultant to NPA. “We want to debunk diet myths and teach consumers that carbohydrates are an integral part of healthful eating plans. Pasta is a perfect foundation for nutrient-dense, low-calorie meals and can be successfully integrated into any weight loss plan.”

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