Pasta’s Split Identity: Whole Grains Healthier

August 06, 2010

There are two different worlds of pasta –

There are two different worlds of pasta – the varieties that bear whole-grain claims and enjoy roiling hot sales, and the refined pasta varieties that deliver far less fiber and nutrients per serving and have hit the sales skids so far in 2010.

Certainly, pasta sales overall have soared as a value food throughout most of the recession – until recently when chief household shoppers became more discriminating in their pasta choices during the most recent 52-weeks, Nielsen data suggest. Sales figures indicate that people are bringing nutrition into their savings-driven purchase decisions in this category, and opting more for the whole-grain pasta varieties that contain the nutritious kernel rich in fiber, minerals and vitamins.

Whole-grain pastas have been available for much of the past decade, but their following has grown in recent years as manufacturers made them more palatable in taste and texture. Manufacturers and retailers benefit by being able to charge a premium for products that support a healthy-eating claim – but consumers benefit too, and many have shown their willingness to spend more in a category that generally saves them money anyway. If they save a little less money because they buy whole-grain pastas, they feel the trade-off is acceptable.

Nielsen data bear this out. The percentage growth of whole-grain pasta sales has outpaced the category in each of the past four years. Of course, the segment’s sales base is far smaller and percentage gains are easier to achieve, but the numbers reveal an unmistakable trend. Here are the comparisons:

Dollar sales of dry pasta (prepackaged, UPC-coded products only) grew a nominal 1.9% in U.S. supermarkets (each $2 million or more in annual sales), excluding supercenters, in the 52 weeks ended July 14, 2007, then rose by 14.0% and 15.5% in two successive years of the recession, before receding with a 1.6% decline to $1.61 billion in the 52 weeks ended July 10, 2010.  

During each of these periods, the faster rates of whole grain pasta sales growth were consistent. In the first of this four-year stretch, the segment’s sales surged by 46.0%; this was followed by successive annual gains of 31.6%, 17.5%, and finally 11.4% to $66.0 million in the latest 52-week period. Equivalized unit volume gains (16-ounce basis) were similarly strong, up 60.8%, 27.9%, 11.0% and 17.6% in yearly succession, posted Nielsen.

By comparison, the percentage sales growth of pastas that lack a whole-grain claim was less dramatic. Dollar sales rose by 0.4% in the 52 weeks ended July 14, 2007, then by 12.8% and 15.4% the next two years, before declining by 2.6% in the latest 52-week period.

Similar trends appear in the dry spaghetti, dry macaroni and noodles and dumplings segments that comprise the vast majority of the dry pasta category.

The recession has cut into the branded share of dry pastas. Private label dollar sales share has risen steadily from 20.7% in 2006 to 23.9%, or $383.8 million in the 52 weeks ended July 10, 2010, Nielsen reported.  Household penetration is a high 86.0%, and nearly nine out of 10 households were repeat buyers of the category during the 52 weeks ended December 26, 2009, noted Nielsen Homescan Consumer Facts. 

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