Pasta Category Redefined with Healthier Options

Efforts to bring pasta back to consumers with high-antioxidant, organic, whole-grain and multi-grain products are redefining the category.

By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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In the 1990s, the low-carb fad made noodles "pasta non grata" with the weight-conscious crowd. The situation motivated pasta manufacturers to unite with Boston-based food think tank Oldways Preservation Trust to get consumers to understand and appreciate the scientific basis of the contributions of pasta to health and nutrition.

With the renewed interest in whole grains, supported by last year's Dietary Guidelines for increasing whole grains in the diet, pasta is back on the plate. The new noodle paradigm has meant some positive changes to the classic formulations to include higher fiber and a variety of grains. And it's paying off: Sales of new, nutrition-positioned whole-grain pastas are expanding rapidly. According to ACNielsen, numbers have tripled in the last four years, with almost 100 new whole- and multi-grain pasta products launched in 2005 (versus 11 in 2001).

That whole grains are healthful is well known and accepted. Yet an estimated 80 percent of consumers reach for them less than once a day. "Taste and appearance are major deterrents," explains Michael Crowley, president of Dreamfields Foods, Inc. (www.dreamfieldsfoods.com), Carrington, N.D. Crowley observes although whole-wheat pasta promotes heart health and provides antioxidants not found in refined pastas, its distinct astringency, texture and "non-fermentable fiber" content keep it out of the mainstream.

Dreamfields solves these problems with a pasta product that combines proprietary technology using long-chain inulin to enhance nutrition. Crowley positioned Dreamfields as the only pasta that increases calcium absorption, promotes a healthy digestive system and helps boost the immune system. By addressing "inflammation," "immunity" and "calcium absorption" - attributes valued by consumers - Dreamfields is positioning itself to be the pasta of choice for health-conscious individuals watching calories and fiber intake or managing diabetes.

NOTE TO PLANT OPS

Making whole-grain pasta can be difficult for manufacturing facilities, especially if the facility also manufactures the refined product, according to pasta operations expert, Norman Abreo.

Abreo, who has worked in nearly every pasta plant in the country, notes that because the whole-grain and multi-grain formulations are intrinsically darker in color, impeccable cleaning of the line and machinery is imperative to help prevent high speck count in the refined product.

Careful scheduling also is important since temperature and humidity extremes tend to accelerate spoilage that gets further magnified in the finished product. Abreo suggests limiting standing time and exposure for multi-grain ingredient mixtures.

New World Pasta's (www.newworldpasta.com) Harrisburg, Pa., Healthy Harvest line uses a blend of whole-grain derivatives from different sources and matches the final composition to whole-wheat flour, selecting components without the astringency or darkness typically associated with whole-wheat pastas. At 6 g of fiber per serving, New World is promoting a multigrain and an Omega-3 version in 2006 to take advantage of the market interest in health and wellness.

Foulds, Inc. (www.fouldspasta.com), a 120-year-old pasta manufacturer based in Libertyville, Ill., has remained a pioneer in the industry with a long-standing reputation for superior pasta. With the launch of the company's new full line of delicious, all-natural, multi-grain pasta, FiberWise, Foulds, Inc. has positioned itself firmly on the crest of the better-for-you pasta wave. The FiberWise line delivers 12 g of natural dietary fiber in each 2-oz. serving. FiberWise utilizes a unique combination of ingredients which avoid gritty texture and bitter flavors often associated with high-fiber pastas.

Spelt, once unpopular with processors because its difficult separation and processing, is enjoying a resurgence with multi-grain Barilla Plus. The product uses oats, barley, flaxseeds, lentils, chickpeas and spelt but is indistinguishable from durum pasta. It is darker than durum pasta, and has a distinct, although certainly not unpleasant aroma. It also claims high omega-3 content referring to popular fatty acids believed beneficial to heart health.

How the grains are milled matters - not only where taste but where nutrition is concerned. Joseph Vanderliet, CEO of Certified Foods (www.certifiedfoods.com) San Leandro, Calif., uses specialized stone mills for the mill's flours. The majority of the whole-grain flours in the U.S. are milled by rollers, which are more abrasive and generate more heat than stone grinding. According to Vanderliet, this tends to damage the germ and accelerates onset of rancidity.

Researcher Len Marquardt of University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, demonstrated that the antioxidants of whole-grain flours were more viable in stone-milled flours, and therefore more beneficial than in roller-milled flours. Research by Riu Hai Liu at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., shows that of the three major components of the kernel - the bran, the germ and the endosperm - the bran and the germ contain a host of vitamins, minerals and fiber, and 83 percent of the phenolics. A large part of these can be lost during refining.

According to Riu, "Whole grains contain protective antioxidants in quantities rivaling or exceeding those in fruits and vegetables." He explains that the antioxidant benefits of whole grains have been seriously underestimated because they occur in nature in a form different from the more readily assayable forms present in fruits and vegetables and not digestible by human enzymes. new research, however, indicates probiotic bacteria in the lower gut release these powerful phytochemicals for the consumer's benefit. Riu credits this previously unknown ‘antioxidant release mechanism' to be an important factor in how whole grains lower incidence of colon cancer.

A major obstacle preventing greater market demand for whole-grain pastas is that they are not as robust and resilient during processing as their refined semolina counterparts. Extended high-temperature exposure makes whole-grain pasta mushy. Also, with repeated freeze/thaw cycles typical of frozen-food processing supply chains, whole-grain pastas tend to develop undesired flavor notes.

An innovative solution is emerging from Saatwic Foods (www.saatwic.com), Nashville, Tenn. The company uses natural plant extracts to help whole- and multi-grain pastas retain their shape and al dente (chewy) texture despite the harsh conditions associated with retort and frozen food processing. Ajay Chawan, president of Saatwic Foods adds that the ingredient also "helps preserve the ‘nutty' flavor consumers value in whole grain pastas." The technology is suitable for foodservice operators, allowing them to offer whole- and multi-grain pastas typically absent in restaurants and institutional food establishments.

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