THE COMEBACK KID

Just a mention of the word pasta a few years ago was enough to make a low-carb dieter cringe. But now that the Atkins diet is on the wane, the pasta aisle is no longer taboo. In fact, it's becoming a destination for certain health-conscious shoppers. Whole wheat and other types of better-for-you options have helped pasta make a comeback at Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, said Christine

Just a mention of the word pasta a few years ago was enough to make a low-carb dieter cringe. But now that the Atkins diet is on the wane, the pasta aisle is no longer taboo. In fact, it's becoming a destination for certain health-conscious shoppers.

Whole wheat and other types of better-for-you options have helped pasta make a comeback at Hy-Vee Food Stores, West Des Moines, Iowa, said Christine Friesleben, assistant director of communications.

“The category is back to normal, even trending up with the introduction of new items such as organic, whole-wheat, multigrain and restaurant-style pastas,” Friesleben said.

Indeed, manufacturers are positioning pasta as healthier, with whole-wheat and other new-product introductions, said Kurt Strofschein, a grocery manager at Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn.

Overall category sales remain flat at Kowalski's, but whole-grain and yolk-less varieties are showing promise. Specialty pasta from De Cecco and other manufacturers are also performing well.

“The specialty and healthier pastas have picked up,” he said.

While overall sales of pasta (excluding noodles) were a flat $1 billion in food stores for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 5, sales of whole-grain varieties are climbing, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Ronzoni Healthy Harvest, for example, generated $34.7 million, which represents a whopping 34.9% growth. Even smaller brands are taking off, including fiber-rich Dreamfields, whose sales were $13.5 million, a 4.7% increase.

“Consumers are definitely coming back to the pasta aisle,” said Jack Hasper, Dreamfields' sales and marketing vice president.

Dreamfields pasta is made with inulin, which reportedly has the benefits of promoting healthy digestion and calcium absorption. It also does not raise blood glucose levels, according to Dreamfields.

So while the carbs are still there, they're the “good” kind, Hasper said. “People are recognizing that pasta is not bad for you.”

Part of that is because carbs are no longer off limits for many dieters. In 2004, the height of the low-carb craze, 3,000 worldwide product introductions — 90% of which were in the U.S. — had a low-carb claim, according to research firm Mintel International, Chicago. But last year, just 300 products made such a claim worldwide.

“Low-carb isn't a factor anymore,” said Lynn Dornblaser, Mintel's custom solutions group director.

Whole grains, on the other hand, are. In the pasta category, just about every brand has a whole-grain option. Last year, 35 new pasta product introductions had a whole-grain claim, up from six in 2004, according to Mintel.

“In terms of product trends, the presence of whole grains is a positive statement to make,” she said.

Pasta is ideally suited for whole grain because it's a grain-based product, Dornblaser noted.

“Companies feel compelled to give consumers a product that fits in with the most recent trend,” she said.

Private label is no exception. Scolari's Food and Drug, Sparks, Nev., has had particularly good success with Full Circle whole-wheat, organic pasta. Full Circle is a corporate brand from Topco Associates, Skokie, Ill.

“We brought it in about eight months ago, and it's one of our top sellers in the natural category,” said Scolari's buyer Steve Dickson.

Such products come at a time when about 93% of all households have pasta in their pantries, according to the research firm NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y.

“Pasta is a great family food,” said Harry Balzer, NPD's vice president.

While the majority of people store it, the challenge is getting them to eat it, Balzer said. The new introductions could help do that because people are intrigued by new shapes, flavors and ingredients.

“Whole-grain pasta is different, and Americans love to try new things,” he said.

But Balzer stopped short of saying that the current consumer interest will have a lasting effect on sales.

“There's no question that whole grain is the latest health trend,” he said. “The question is whether it's a momentary shift or a long-term trend.”

Mintel's Dornblaser doesn't see whole grains following in the steps of low-carb. The reason for this is taste. Indeed, whole-grain pasta tastes different than regular. But it's not a major taste compromise like low-carb dieting is, she said.

“You don't feel like you're giving up a lot by eating whole-grain pasta,” she said.

Meanwhile, the new pastas are changing the look of retailer shelves. Manufacturers are differentiating the offerings with new packaging colors, graphics and icons. Ronzoni Healthy Harvest, for instance, a multigrain macaroni, comes in a brown package to distinguish it from its traditional counterpart. Other brands also use brown coloring, along with “heart-healthy” and “whole grain” graphics, and images of wheat.

Mars Super Markets, Baltimore, separates whole grain from regular pasta, according to category buyer Maryann Wagner.

While there's a segment of consumers who flock to the subcategory, it accounts for a small percentage of sales, Wagner noted.

“Healthy Harvest and others like it are moving, but the big sellers are still traditional Barilla and San Giorgio,” she said.

To spur sales, Mars advertises pasta every other week in its circular. The whole-wheat blends are featured in temporary price reductions every few weeks at about 20 cents less than regular retails.

Wagner's main concern is the potential for category price increases. At least one manufacturer has already notified her that prices will increase 18% this year.

Macaroni Madness

A variety of whole-grain national-brand and private-label pastas have hit retailer shelves recently. Among them:

  • Knorr/Lipton Whole Grain Pasta Sides
  • Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Spaghetti
  • Italpasta Whole Wheat Pasta
  • President's Choice 100% Whole Wheat Spaghetti
  • Ronzoni Healthy Harvest Multigrain Pasta
  • Mueller's Multi Grain Penne
  • Kroger Whole-Wheat Penne Rigate
  • Foulds' Fiber Wise Pasta

Going with the Grain

Overall pasta sales remain flat at $1 billion in food stores, but there's been significant growth in fiber-rich brands like Ronzoni Healthy Harvest.

BRAND DOLLAR SALES % CHANGE
Ronzoni Healthy Harvest $34.7M 34.9%
Barilla Plus $30.8M 91.5%
Dreamfields $13.5M 4.7%
Source: IRI, based on food store sales for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 5, 2006, compared with year-ago sales