Keto and low-carb diets impacted pasta’s popularity, but a COVID-influenced comfort food movement has revived sluggish sales in shelf-stable pasta, while refrigerated options, instant noodles, and gluten-free varieties continue to grow.
Sales Stats and Outlook
When at-home meal preparation became the primary focus in 2020, sales of shelf-stable specialty pasta grew 90 times faster than in 2019, according to SFA’s The State of the Specialty Food Industry research. This year’s recently released State of the Industry report shows that shelf-stable specialty pasta has grown 17.7 percent from 2019 to 2021 to $551 million, while refrigerated specialty pasta jumped 39.2 percent in the same timeframe, hitting $326 million. Short pasta and stuffed pastas helped drive growth in refrigerated while Asian noodles helped grow the shelf-stable category.
Specialty varieties account for 66 percent of the category’s total market share for refrigerated pasta and 28 percent for shelf-stable pasta.
While sales growth for both categories slowed in 2021 versus the 2020 surge, both are forecast to grow through 2026, according to the State of the Industry report. Refrigerated pasta is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 5.2 percent from 2022 to 2026 and shelf-stable is forecast to grow 4.1 percent CAGR during that period.
Although supply chain hiccups and massive out of stocks at the beginning of the pandemic led consumers to purchase whatever they could get their hands on, including private label, many wound up trading up to specialty when it came to pasta in 2020, mainly to improve the at-home meal experience.
“The initial ‘pantry stuffing’ surge and immediate lack of available product provided unique opportunities for both supplier and consumer,” noted Justin Teten, category manager, KeHe Distributors. “The lack of available conventional pasta during the height of the pandemic made consumers pivot to alternative brands that may not have been on their shopping list.”
He added, “Fortunately, many of those brands that benefitted from availability have maintained a place in the pantry.”
Teten highlights pasta made with chickpeas or Konjac noodles as two alternative pasta types that piqued consumer interest and have also maintained consistent growth.
A renewed interest in center-store shopping, social media’s influence for trending recipes gone viral, media coverage, and COVID-inspired health interest, are driving sales of traditional pasta and other global noodles.
A report by Mintel, The Future of Rice, Grain & Noodle, 2021, suggests the appeal of customization, along with new flavor opportunities in the affordable instant noodle subcategory, will continue to drive innovation. However, brands must engage consumers by offering healthier alternatives and products that showcase both regional and global flavors, to be able to continue to build on recent sales.
Instant Noodle Appeal
According to SFA’s research, Asian noodles were up a whopping 44 percent in sales during 2020’s height of stay-at-home mandates, driving some of the wheat pasta category growth and challenging traditional shelf-stable pasta shapes.
“Ramen and soba noodle sales have definitely increased,” noted Lisette Campbell, head buyer, Union Market, New York City. “More cooking at home with different cuisines and a growing trend of DIY sauces/condiments seen on social media clips have been a driving force for this,” she said.
A growing demand for shelf-stable foods also boosted Asian noodles. “[They] have seen a significant rise in consumption,” noted Teten. “And, with health as a priority, brands are answering this call with a focus on healthy and functional ingredients,” he added.
Teten reported innovations with non-fried instant noodles and ingredients that are not wheat such as Lotus Foods Rice Ramen, made with millet and brown rice.
At Kimika restaurant in New York City, classic Italian and Japanese fare collide to give ordinary noodles and pasta dishes accelerated global flavor. Last spring, NYC chef Christine Lau collaborated with A-sha, a Taiwanese, air-dried ramen noodle brand, to show how instant noodles can be taken to the next level. For example, by creating dishes like ‘crabby crab crab,’ made with A-sha Mandarin noodles, Dungeness crab, crab miso, yellow chives, and citrus, she highlighted the noodles’ delicate flavor and ability to stand up to myriad flavors.
“Ramen [noodles] are making inroads in the pasta segment,” noted Young Chang, president and CEO of A-sha. He attributed ramen’s refresh to COVID’s comfort-food surge, consumers’ willingness and curiosity to try new cuisines, and the influence of media. “A lot of food-related programming on Netflix and Hulu have given Asian noodles renewed exposure,” he noted.
Intriguing Pasta Shapes
While the temporary halt of bucatini production from legacy brands Barilla and DeCecco during the height of lockdown initiated a nationwide shortage, it set the stage for other pasta shapes and brands to gain some well-deserved attention. Sfoglini’s Cascatelli, a new shape designed to better hold sauce, is a prime example.
According to Mintel’s report, brands need to seize the opportunity to keep consumers engaged by offering dry products that are new and exciting while intriguing them with new shapes and more variety. This will open opportunities for customers to learn about the specific role each type of pasta plays in certain kinds of dishes and will broaden their palates beyond penne.
Adam Fragola, pasta chef and owner of Villarina’s Pasta Shop, New Milford, Connecticut, sells everything from imported Italian dried pasta and ravioli to fresh, organic, house-made pasta. He says lately it’s the “awesome fun shapes that are catching customers’ eyes. Shapes like radaitore, rotelle, pizzichi, and pici (for those who want to make cacio e pepe with ‘fat spaghetti’) have a big presence.”
And, when The New York Times promoted a Chicken Soup with Pastina recipe, Brooklyn-based D. Coluccio & Sons had a run on acini di pepe.
“Once something goes viral, there’s a huge calling for it for a while and customers won’t settle for anything but exactly what they see on social media or what the recipe calls for,” said co-owner, Cathy Fazzolari. Fazzolari, who specializes in pastas from different regions in Italy, also said specialty shapes catch attention. “Trofie, a short, thin twisted pasta from Liguria, and pici are popular,” she noted.
Gluten-Free Adds Functional Benefits
COVID’s dramatic influence on consumption patterns left consumers seeking pasta not only for comfort and affordability, but also to benefit their health or to complement their lifestyle. Gluten-free and plant-based pastas are still in high demand, but shoppers are demanding more out of brands.
“Keto and Paleo lifestyles continue to drive innovation in a category that is synonymous with carbs,” said Teten. “But, category saturation has stagnated the growth of brands and cuts from alternative flour—sources such as lentils, green peas, quinoa. In its place are enhanced options infused with vitamins, protein, and fiber that still deliver that expected pasta taste and texture,” he added.
Teten said emerging brands with added vitamins, protein, and fiber include Chickapea, which boasts 24 grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber per 3.5-ounce serving of pasta made from organic chickpeas, lentils, kale, and spinach; Palmni, made from hearts of palm with 4 grams of carbs and only 20 calories per serving; and The Only Bean, organic edamame fettuccine bean pasta with 19 grams of fiber, 44 grams of protein, and 16 grams of net carbs per 3.5-ounce serving.
Union Market’s Campbell said organic and protein-based pastas that are gluten-free have become more appealing to customers. Brands like Tolerant Foods made from either chickpeas or lentils and Banza made from chickpeas are trending.
At D. Coluccio, Fazzolari has seen customer demand for gluten-free practically double each month. She stocks Le Veneziane from Molina di Ferro from Veneto, a non-GMO corn-based product. And Fragola is emphatic about the shift toward better gluten-free. He devotes an entire freezer to locally made DePuma’s gluten-free fresh pasta.
According to Mintel’s report, the next two years will bring updated messaging to demonstrate the importance of fiber more clearly in whole grain pastas, possibly turning the negative perception that all carbs have received. Brands that talk up the functional benefits of carbs could help consumers see pasta as a part of a balanced diet for energy, attracting more athletes and fitness-minded consumers.
“In a category that has experienced significant innovation in alternative pasta and flour types, taste and texture will still drive repeat consumer purchases,” Tenten said.
“And,” he adds, “it remains to be seen whether or not that consumer sentiment leads to alternative brand growth beyond that of conventional brands.”
There will also be significant hurdles to overcome related to supply chain challenges. Noted Fazzolari, “The sheer increase in demand, a lower yield of wheat worldwide, and freight tripling, will bring noticeable price increases.”