Spaghetti, mac-and-cheese and other indulgent noodle dishes have been perennially popular foods that work with the wallet when times are tight. Pasta proved an affordable comfort food during the recession, but an improved economy that has people dining out more often, combined with trends toward eating low-carb and gluten-free are fueling a decline in retail sales of dried pasta in the US and other global markets.
Americans eat about 6 billion pounds of pasta annually, about 24% of the global total consumed each year, according to the National Pasta Association. We’re also a major producer of the stuff — U.S. companies make 4.4 billion pounds of pasta each year.
The US employment picture has brightened and gas prices are still fairly low, factors that drove consumers to dine out more often in August, according to the Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report that came out Tuesday. Grocery store sales also added to the 0.2% retail sales increase, but other data show shoppers may not be tossing nearly as much dried pasta into their carts than they might have in leaner years.
Retail sales of dried pasta began declining in 2013 and were flat for 2014, according to Euromonitor, and sales of pasta, rice and grain-based meals are likely to be flat or down through 2019, according to Mintel, with pasta seeing the biggest decline as consumers continue to cut carbs and gluten.
People are also looking to add more protein to their diets — an NPD Group survey from 2014 found that more than half of adults are looking for ways to add more protein. Half of those people prefer non-meat sources of protein, and the trend may mean new opportunities for pasta makers.
In addition to offering gluten-free and wheat-free options, food makers can increase their offerings of rice and high-protein and high-fiber options such as quinoa and couscous. “Consumers also increasingly expect packaged foods to provide added nutritional benefits such as added protein or vitamins. Adding a greater range of ethnic flavors can help spur interest and potentially grow category sales,” the Mintel report says.
Private label pasta gained market share during the downturn and it accounted for 23% of sales in 2014, according to Euromonitor, as shoppers stuck with the bargain brands they discovered in the lean years and private-label manufacturers appealed to healthy eaters with new products such as protein-enriched pasta.
Another variety that has seen stronger sales growth in recent years is refrigerated pasta, which jumped 78% to become the fastest-growing specialty food category in the Specialty Food Association’s 2015 State of the Specialty Food Industry report.
Health-conscious pasta fans are also turning to vegetables for low-carb, gluten-free options. Gadgets called spiralizers that easily turn zucchini, yellow squash and other veggies into “noodles” that can be served raw or briefly warmed with a variety of different sauces are increasingly popular.
Still, for most pasta lovers only the real thing will do. Italian food remains the favorite ethnic cuisine in America, with 61% of people eating it at least once a month, according to a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association.
“Pasta is expected to remain a pantry staple and should not encounter difficulties maintaining its current level of volume sales but strong growth will be hard to come by,” the Euromonitor report said.
If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s email list for more stories about the food and beverage industry. We offer 14 newsletters covering the industry from restaurants to food manufacturing.