Barilla Plus Rotini

Barilla Plus Rotini with multi-grains, fiber and omega-3s moves pasta from just a starch to a food with excellent nutritional value.

By Hollis Ashman and Jacqueline Beckley, Consumer Understanding Editors

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With Barilla Plus, the company is trying to reframe the nutritional value of pasta  by fortifying with protein, fiber and heart-healthy oils (omega-3s).

At the peak of low-fat dieting, pasta was the key foodstuff to consume. It was low in fat, easy to prepare and affordable. As diets shifted to low-carb, pasta fell out of favor. Even now, new pastas need to work hard to get the consumer's attention.

The new Dietary Guidelines arrived just as low-carb dieting was on the decline. With the new guides came increased emphasis on (and growing consumer awareness of) grains, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids for heart health. Barilla has created a product with multi-grains, fiber, protein and omega-3s to entice the consumer to consider pasta again. The result is Barilla Plus Rotini.

Understanding the marketplace

Pasta long has been considered an affordable belly filler. Dried pasta products give consumers easy storage until they're ready to create a variety of entrees or side dishes.

Dried pasta has a market size of $2.8 billion and a traditional growth rate of 2.4 percent, according to Information Resources Inc. figures. However, with the past year's focus on low carbs, consumption declined 5-6 percent in 2004, according to ACNielsen. In the past year and a half, North American pasta consumption has dropped by more than 100 million lbs.

Consumption is still on the order of 3.5 to 4 billion lbs., although overcapacity in the North American market has put downward pressure on prices and margins.

The dried pasta figures are lagging the overall pasta market, which is $6.0 billion in sales with a growth rate of 6.5 percent. The majority of growth of the overall pasta market has come from frozen pasta dinners/entrees and shelf-stable pasta.

At retail, consumers see a broad mix of suppliers of pasta with sources that are global, national and regional. Key brands include DeCecco, Barilla, DaVinci, American Italian Pasta Co. (with brands like Mueller's, Golden Grain, Anthony's, Pennsylvania Dutch, Mrs. Grass and more, all regional) and Dakota Growers (Dreamfields brand).

Until the late-1990s Barilla was virtually unknown in the U.S. Barilla is based in the northern Italian city of Parma, where it was founded in 1877. The company entered the U.S. market in 1996 and promptly built a plant here, planning to become a major player in the American pasta market. Barilla has been trying to move the consumer mindset from viewing pasta as just a starch to a food with excellent nutritional value. Pasta can have more protein than either rice or potatoes, is low in fat and can be a source of dietary fiber. But can Barilla change consumers' perception of pasta?

Insights

Barilla is trying to meet the needs of the consumer for the 75 percent of meals they eat at home. Company officials are seeking to shift the value paradigm from quick, filling meals to quick, filling, nutritious meals. With particular regard to Barilla Plus, they are trying to reframe the nutritional value of pasta to be better than most meats, milk and vegetables by fortifying with protein, fiber and heart-healthy oils (omega-3s).

There are a lot of healthy choices, but the consumer is confused – by the 12 versions of the new Food Pyramid to the sometimes questionable claims of nutritionally fortified foods. Foods are moving away from their standards of identity toward items with unique health claims, structure/function claims or dietary guidance.

The average consumer has small regard for the efficacy of these new claims. According to a survey by Mintel International, 61 percent of respondents were "not convinced of the benefits of functional food or drinks," while 56 percent indicated they "would like to know more about them." Further, functional foods figure into an evening meal only about 2.6 percent of the time.

Attempts at fortified side dishes have not fared well, according to CNN Money. One of the few efforts, Uncle Ben's Calcium Plus calcium-fortified rice (Masterfoods USA, Hackettstown, N.J.), failed to garner much interest after launching in 1997.

According to our Healthy You! Insight studies, the key attributes for pasta are taste, texture and flavor variety. Consumers are looking for a pasta product to enhance their center-of-the-plate meal. Pasta is consumed at dinner and lunchtime as part of a meal.

When consumers are asked to trade off healthy ideas about pasta, the ideas, rated from top to bottom, are: flavors, fiber and structure function claims, vitamins, low fat, classic-tasting, endorsed by the American Heart Assn., minerals, all-natural, finest ingredients and reducing the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. So consumers are open to healthy ideas, but manufacturers must make them flavorful, low fat and classic-tasting.

Key trends that are impacting this category are convenience, flavor and healthfulness.

Convenience: Manufacturers are responding to consumers' hectic lifestyles by creating packaging that assists convenience. Other starches, especially the new pouched rices, can cook more quickly than pasta. While pasta entrees have moved to individual microwave meals, pasta itself has held to the large, commodity package designed for the traditional family-oriented pasta meal. Ease of preparation and cleanup are still challenge areas.

Flavor: Not just flavors but also colors, shapes and fillings drive interest in pasta and give consumers an opportunity to be creative and to experiment. Color typically comes from tomato (red), spinach (green) and squid ink (black). Fillings have included basic and gourmet versions of meats and cheeses.

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