Pasta sales cool a bit

July 08, 2011

Convenience, value and health varieties drive pasta sales, which nevertheless lose some steam as the economy tries to recover.

As America’s economy slowly recovers, families that consumed pasta heavily during the recession are buying a little less of it. The category is holding onto its hefty gains of the recession years so far, but the latest full-year comparisons in most segments are down by low single-digit percentages.

In America’s kitchens, the pasta and sauces we eat have a decided 21st century turn – one that is quite distant from the rich Italian heritage of fine foods. Our pasta dishes frequently fill needs for convenience and value, and sometimes health. Multiple servings can be cooked once, stored easily and reheated for meals at different times for hectic households.  

When the recession gripped the nation – and dry macaroni and spaghetti sales jumped by more than 22% – some 18.2% of U.S. households said they lacked the money to buy enough food. The percentage of ‘food hardship’ households was even higher, at 24.1%, for households with children, according to the Food Research and Action Center, cited by Reuters. These figures reflected an intensified challenge to feed families in 2009, greater than the federal government’s ‘food insecurity’ rating of 14.9% of households in 2008 suggested.

Health is in the pasta picture too, given the growing popularity of gluten-free and whole-grain varieties, as well as light dishes like pasta primavera and pesto pasta bowl – the latter mentioned as a 2011 food trend on college campuses by Sodexo.

The largest pasta segment in U.S. food stores ($2 million or more in annual sales) is dry dinners. After three years of gains, the segment’s dollar sales edged down by 0.4% to $1.34 billion, according to Nielsen data tracking prepackaged, UPC-coded products only for the 52 weeks ended April 16, 2011.  

Dry macaroni and dry spaghetti have experienced similar trajectories over the past few years.  Dollar sales of dry macaroni, the second-largest pasta segment, were up 11.3% in the like-2008 period and 22.3% in the like-2009 period, but slowed down to a 0.2% advance in the like-2010 period and declined 0.3% to $742.6 million in the latest 52 weeks, reported Nielsen.  Meanwhile, dollar sales of dry spaghetti, the third-largest pasta segment, rose 9.6% in the like-2008 period and 22.8% in the like-2009 period, before dropping 0.3% in the like-2010 period and even further by 3.4% to $528.7 million in the most recent 12 months.

Noodles and dumplings dollar sales were also down 2.0% to $282.1 million in the latest year. The two smallest segments were up, however. Refrigerated pasta is on at least a four-year ascent, up 4.6% to $207.4 million in the latest 52 weeks.  Frozen pasta also rose for four years straight, up 0.3% to $196.3 million in the most recent 12 months, shows Nielsen data.

Gluten-free and fiber-claim pastas are two hot spots, show the Nielsen LabelTrends data for U.S. food stores (excluding supercenters). Dollar sales for gluten-free dry macaroni, spaghetti and dinners rose by double-digit percentages in the 52 weeks ended April 16, 2011. Also, refrigerated and frozen gluten-free pasta dollar sales were up by triple digits. Meanwhile, four out of six pasta segments with fiber claims rose for the third straight year.

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