Category sales surged during the recent recession due to these products’ cost-effectiveness, but future growth will be fueled by gluten-free varieties, heirloom rice and ancient grains.

By Denise Shoukas

There was a time when the low-carb craze threatened the sales of pastas, noodles and grains. Now data shows that while the ongoing interest in low-carbohydrate and paleo-type diets has affected overall sales, the category has shown strong growth, hitting $6.7 billion in 2012. During the recession from 2007 to 2008, sales grew 13.1 percent, and increased 5.2 percent overall from 2008 to 2012, thanks to the introduction of ancient grains, gluten-free varieties and ethnic options like rice noodles. (Ancient grains dollar sales are not included in this report, but items like amaranth, freekeh and teff are gaining in popularity and may benefit the category for their gluten-free attributes and generally lower carbohydrate and caloric content.) Convenience and affordability play important roles in the category’s growth. Price remains a smart strategy to market pasta, rice and grains, but consumers also place interest on quality, indulgence and health.

Mintel defines dry pasta, rice, noodles and ancient grains to include dry rice and instant rice mix/flavored rice; dry pasta and dry pasta packaged with a sauce; dry egg noodles and dry Asian noodles such as soba or rice noodles; and grains, such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat, couscous and barley. Pasta and pasta-based meals purchased in restaurants or foodservice outlets are excluded, as are refrigerated and frozen pasta and rice meals, including macaroni and cheese, as well as shelf-stable canned pasta and shelf-stable ready-to-serve rice.


Key Points

  • Hitting an estimated $6.7 billion in 2012, the dry pasta, rice and noodles category has had an impressive performance, particularly from 2007 to 2008 with a 13.1 percent dollar sales increase during the recession, when consumers looked for affordable meals to cook at home. Mintel forecasts sales to hit $7.3 billion by 2017.
  • In natural retail channels, gluten-free pasta sales grew at nearly three times the rate of traditionally made pasta, earning a 41.3 percent segment share of 2012 pasta sales.
  • The drought of 2012 drove up prices of grains such as corn, wheat and soybeans, affecting traditional pasta made with wheat. But it opened the door for alternative grains and rice, such as rice noodles, heirloom rice and ancient grains. Understanding how to prepare these alternative items is a challenge, but providing sales, coupons, demos and recipes can be a powerful marketing strategy.
  • An increased interest in healthier eating continues to have a negative effect on rice mixes and pasta-based meal alternatives, particularly as governmental regulations continue to press more strict nutritional requirements. That said, most consumers regard shelf-stable products as valuable due to their ease and shortness of preparation time, with health not necessarily being a priority.
  • Gluten-free items in all segments helped boost sales. The allure of quinoa—which is both gluten-free and high in protein—also fostered growth. Mintel estimates that future growth will continue to be strong even for traditionally made wheat pastas, as consumers look for ways to improve the quality and/or distinctiveness of their food, seeking out new and different items and boosting sales of high-priced heirloom varieties of rice, quinoa, other grains and finished products made with these ingredients.

Microwavable convenience remains a top claim even though it declined by 15 percent since 2008. Kosher and time/speed also remain important. Ease of use, low/no/reduced allergen and ethical/environmentally friendly packaging are the only claims that have increased overall from 2008 to 2012, the latter a whopping 156 percent. Whole-grain and wholesome claims have been declining, despite an increased consumer interest in a more healthful lifestyle.

Dry pasta and noodles lead the way in terms of dollars, just slightly above dry rice and rice mixes. Together these two segments dominate the market with 66.8 percent of dollar sales. Dry macaroni-and-cheese mixes compose the third-largest segment within the category, with $1.3 billion in sales.


Key Points

  • Consumption of dry pasta and noodles is quite high, with more than eight in 10 respondents eating it in the three months preceding the November 2012 survey. Younger consumers are eating more dry egg noodles/Asian noodles than other age groups. While noodles are not as popular with older consumers, perhaps due to lower awareness, expected 2013 price increases for wheat could influence more purchases of Asian noodles, which are made from rice, grains or other plants.
  • The rice category is near saturation, with 93 percent of respondents saying they’ve eaten some type of rice in the same three-month period and 88 percent having eaten regular dry rice, both brown and white. Forty-eight percent of rice eaters agree it is a good source of nutrition, but only a quarter of these consumers agree rice is healthier than pasta or potatoes.
  • Consumption of ancient grains is much lower compared with dry pasta and rice, with 44 percent of respondents eating them in the three-month period. Barley and couscous are in the lead in terms of usage; three in 10 respondents ate them in the three-month period, and quinoa follows closely. A lack of awareness, coupled with minimal exposure and knowledge of benefits, could all be contributors to a lower consumption rate than the other products in the category.
  • Whole-wheat pasta has become more prevalent, yet 24 percent of respondents agree that whole-wheat pasta does not taste as good as its regular counterpart. However, the report also shows that 56 percent of respondents who ate and bought dry pasta consider high fiber important. Only 7 percent of respondents who ate pasta in the three-month period agree that gluten-free pasta tastes as good as regular.
  • Smaller brands have succeeded in attracting consumers through transparency, cleaner ingredient lists and a more favorable nutritional profile. And despite a sometimes higher price, some consumers still opt for them in an attempt to eat more healthful alternatives. Nostalgic, decadent items such as macaroni and cheese still appeal to consumers who do not want to give up on indulgence.

Purchase decisions are based on price and value, with 36 percent of respondents buying whatever products are on sale. Additionally, the category seems to be characterized by fairly low brand loyalty, with only a third of respondents buying name brands. That said, additional data shows that brand loyalty comes with increased age and income. About three in 10 consumers agree that private label tastes the same as name brands, creating opportunity for retailer store brands.

While most of the grains that belong to this group have been consumed by humans for thousands of years, the majority of ancient grains are new to many Americans. Ancient grain consumption is much lower compared with that of pasta and rice, but still moderately high, with 44 percent of respondents having eaten ancient grains in the past three months. By exposing consumers to the health benefits and easy ways to prepare these grains, there is room for dramatic growth.

Recent Product Introductions

Explore Asian Organic Black Bean Spaghetti
Freekeh Foods Freekeh with Tamari
King Soba Organic Brown Rice & Wakame Gluten-Free Noodles
MagNoodles Organic Multi Whole Grain Rotini
Muso Soba Noodles
Nature’s Earthly Choice 100% Whole Grain Bulgur Wheat
Pereg Gourmet Toasted Pearl Pasta and Orzo
Seeds of Change Quinoa and Brown Rice with Garlic
Sierra Foods Whole Grain Bulgur Pilaf Mix
TruRoots Ancient Grain Organic Penne Pasta

Editor’s Note: Specialty Food Magazine is pleased to be working with Mintel on Research Spotlight. Mintel is a leading supplier of competitive media, product and consumer data. A 34-year reputation for delivering dependable and original market information has allowed Mintel to maintain Business Superbrand status in the U.K. Mintel’s product line includes: Mintel Reports, a renowned market intelligence report series, publishing more than 600 reports annually covering the U.S. and Europe; and Mintel’s GNPD, the Global New Products Database, which monitors worldwide product innovation in consumer packaged goods markets. For more information call 312.943.5250 or visit Specialty Food Association members may purchase Mintel’s dry pasta, rice, noodles and ancient grains report at a 10 percent discount.