Having survived the low-carb craze and returned to a rolling boil during the recession, noodle makers are ready to explore some healthy new avenues.
Mainstream brands like Ronzoni have developed whole grain and fiber-enriched pastas, while niche companies are storming the market with gluten-free varieties. So far, these ventures have paid off: Sales of gluten-free noodles increased 40% during last year, according to the Nielsen Co.
But manufacturers are doing much more than just following nutrient trends. They're experimenting with niche varieties from Asia, and they're incorporating unique flavors and textures like yam, spelt, rice and buckwheat. As with the beverage and chip categories, it seems noodles are evolving into a delivery system for all sorts of flavors and health benefits.
Eden Foods, Clinton, Mich., runs a dedicated pasta factory in Detroit that turns out organic whole grain noodles. The company also offers a variety of Japanese noodles using ingredients like wild yam and lotus root. Similarly, Annie Chun's, San Rafael, Calif., sells packages of chow mein noodles, pad thai rice noodles, soba noodles and other Asian-inspired choices.
“We're really now embracing Asian cuisine, and that brings a whole different type of noodle to the dinner table,” said Diana Wang, director of marketing with Annie Chun's.
Restaurant industry observers credit the rise of noodle bars like New York's Momofuku, as well as chain restaurants like P.F. Chang's. Cooking and health magazines have also latched onto noodle varieties as building blocks for healthy recipes. Men's Health recently ran a feature with several recipes using fiber-rich shiritaki noodles. Real Simple, meanwhile, features a recipe for sesame chicken with soba noodles.
Perhaps no product better embodies this new direction than instant noodles. Long an unglamorous dorm-room staple, the noodle-and-broth formula that so many know is getting an upgrade.
“Although widely consumed, instant noodles, as a product category, have been forced to confront health issues just like any other packaged food product,” stated a recent report from Global Industry Analysts, a market research firm based in San Jose, Calif. GIA estimates sales of instant noodle packs will reach $140 billion by 2015.