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.

Healthfulness: Pasta has had its healthy halo damaged in the past few years. The industry needs to remind consumers of the slow-releasing effects of complex carbohydrates and pasta's higher protein and fiber content then other starches. There have not been overall health claims for the category.

One more trend worth noting is family size. Households with children have been consistent, high-volume consumers of pasta, and most pasta packages have been geared that way. Decreasing household sizes has impacted pasta consumption.
The pasta's tasters were pleasantly surprised; they found it fit well with typical family dinners.


The experience

Barilla Plus is available in six pasta shapes for a variety of recipe needs for $1.69-1.99. Each package is 16 oz. It requires a slightly longer cook time versus traditional pasta due to the ingredients. The package clearly identifies this requirement.

We tried the rotini shape. The package is a golden yellow with the Barilla logo, different from the deep blue of regular Barilla pasta, and has a clear window to show the shape of the pasta you are purchasing. There is a set of bursts "More Nutrition Naturally Delicious", "Made with Multi-grain," "Good Source of Fiber and Protein" and "Rich in Heart Healthy Omega-3."

The side panel features an interesting table comparing this pasta to chicken breast, ground beef, milk, egg, spinach, broccoli, salmon and shrimp on the basis of protein, fat, fiber and omega-3. The table clearly shows the high nutritional value of this pasta against those other foods. The back panel links the multi-grains to fiber, legumes to protein and fiber and ground flaxseed to omega-3s, along with the structure function claims each of these ingredients can offer.

Texture and flavor are critical to the perception of quality of pasta. Uncooked, this looks like regular pasta. There is a faint, unfamiliar odor generated in the kitchen when boiling the noodles. The flavor is heartier than refined flour pasta but still mild, even with the ingredients one might think would give a stronger flavor profile. There is a clean finish, unlike early versions of whole-wheat pasta. The flavor profile allows a good fit with a center-of-the-plate entrée or alone under a sauce.

The texture is consistent and al dente/tender. Our tasters were surprised: They had expected an unusual array of off-flavor notes, yet found this pasta fit well with typical family dinners. The pasta enabled them to feel better about serving pasta to their families. It allowed them to feel that even a meatless pasta meal could be rich in protein and fiber benefits.

A 2-oz. serving provides 1 g of fat, 25 g of sodium, 10 g of protein, 4 g of fiber and only 200 calories. These features allow the claim of two times the fiber and 40 percent more protein than traditional pasta. The familiar comfort meal for the family can now be easily transformed into a meal providing significant health benefits. And nobody needs to know!

Does the product deliver?

The Barilla brand stands for quality and family with products dedicated to developing, creating and sharing delicious, wholesome food with the "global neighborhood." The company is still family-owned and -run. This product is about satisfying family needs and providing a healthy foundation for a nutritionally balanced meal.

Creating traditional and familiar foods while meeting the needs of today is an accomplishment. This product allows the family to eat more nutritiously without changing things too much. While priced more than commodity pasta, this is an affordable alternative to many.

How to make the idea bigger

This product is competing with other pastas and starches. Most consumers are unaware of the health benefits of pastas, and Barilla Plus more than delivers. Fundamentally this is a great nutritionally dense product that fits contemporary consumer lifestyles.

In order to consider how the idea might be bigger, the question may be related to how much consumers are willing to pay for this product's benefits. If consumers consider how easily similar food products fit their lifestyles, they will see more convenient options, such as Lipton side dish pouched noodles and those bagged, microwaveable rices. The amount of time this takes to cook is a bit long. Creating a quicker-cooking version could even translate this product into a healthy snack food.

Rating: Barilla Plus delivers on its promises. It fits traditional family-oriented, comfort meals and does not require consumers to change their behavior to gain the health benefits.

Market Potential: Good. This is a product that raises the bar on what is good and what is healthy. Barilla Plus makes it difficult for consumers to consider just plain pasta anymore. This will serve as a benchmark for others that will follow.

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