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This isn’t your nonna’s pasta

Stripped of gluten and pumped with nutrients, today's pasta is anything but traditional

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The days of shoppers stocking pantries with low-carb pasta are over. That trend fizzled out alongside the Atkins and South Beach diet craze.

People are still health-conscious today, of course, but offering up low-carb options is no longer of mass appeal.

Sales of traditional dry pasta are down 1% in dollars, but up 2% in volume, according to Nielsen data. And while sales of old standbys macaroni and spaghetti are flat in dollars and up 3% in volume, other types of pasta are down 6% in both dollars and volume.

But a bright spot in the pasta category is emerging.

“There’s a big increase in specialty pastas,” says John Porco, chief operating officer at Unico, owner of Primo Foods. Primo has a number of specialty pastas in its portfolio, including its Primo GrainWise whole grain pastas. Earlier this year, the company added high- fibre penne and spaghetti and a line of gluten-free pasta to the GrainWise brand.

Leading today’s growing interest in specialty pastas is the gluten-free trend, which hit the mainstream about four years ago and shows no signs of slowing. Gluten–a protein found in wheat–is getting a lot of bad press, causing some consumers to avoid products such as pasta that are traditionally made with wheat. (Conversely, gluten-free pasta is most often made with rice or corn.)

READ: Retailers, beware of gluten-free claims

The Canadian Celiac Association reports an estimated 1% of Canadians are affected by the autoimmune disorder celiac disease, and another 5% have non-celiac gluten

sensitivity. Some people also choose to cut out gluten from their diet even when it’s not a health issue. “Many people feel better when they go gluten-free,” says Kathy Smart, author of gluten-free cookbook Live the Smart Way. The trend is fuelling the market for gluten-free products, which the Allergen Control Group–the Canadian company that runs the Gluten-Free Certification Program–estimates is worth about $400 million a year.

Pasta manufacturers have responded in a big way. In addition to Primo’s gluten- free options, other major brands are jumping on the bandwagon, including Barilla, Catelli and Walmart, which introduced gluten-free versions of its Great Value pasta line in June. “Gluten-free pasta is increasing at the fastest pace,” says Gabrielle Totesau of pasta manufacturer Barilla, which sells gluten-free spaghetti, penne and macaroni. “[Sales are] up 40% over last year.”

Gluten-free is also an important part of Italpasta’s portfolio. In 2011, the company introduced a line of gluten-free fusilli, penne rigate and spaghetti. “It’s certainly part of most companies’ portfolios,” says Frank DeMichino, chief operating officer at Italpasta. “We’re all scrambling, trying to make sure we have a gluten-free offering on the shelf.”

Smaller pasta manufacturers are also in on the trend. Toronto-based Pasta Quistini offers string and tube styles of pasta, such as fettuccine, linguine, penne and rigatoni. Similarly, smaller Canadian brands, such as Tinkyada and Rizopia, are available in a number of stores across the country and offer rice-based versions of dry pasta. There is a stumbling block, though.

“You can make pasta from rice, but it’s not very nutritious,” says Peter Frohlich, a project manager with the Canadian International Grains Institute. Frohlich is working on making gluten-free pasta using pulse flours made from lentils and peas instead of rice or corn.

A U.S.-based manufacturer, Tolerant Foods, has already started. It produces pasta from black beans and red lentils. The products are sold at several specialty retailers in Ontario and B.C., including Organic Garage in Oakville, Ont., The Big Carrot in Toronto and at some Foodland locations.

Gluten-free pasta isn’t the only type of pasta getting added nutrition these days.

READ: Catelli survey confirms Canadians’ desire for healthy foods

Another big trend is adding fibre, 100% whole grains, protein or other superfoods to up pasta’s nutritional value.

“We’re looking at a pasta that delivers everything: high protein, high fibre and high omegas,” says Italpasta’s DeMichino. His company already has a line called Wholesome Grains Pasta, which includes whole wheat, whole grain and multigrain recipes, and is also developing a product with added protein, fibre and omega.

U.S.-based Al Dente Pasta, whose products are available in Ontario and Quebec, is adding more nutrition to its pasta with the BonaChia line of fettuccine and linguine.

Products in the line are made with chia seeds, a superfood high in protein, fibre and antioxidants.

“The way chia interacts with water, it acts as an egg substitute,” says Monique Deschaine, Al Dente’s founder. “It has extra nutrition from the seeds.”

These pastas are getting more shelf space, too, says Carlo Noce, a category manager with Longo’s in Toronto.

READ: TV chef David Rocco gets cooking with Barilla

“Specialty pastas used to be a shelf or two in your whole pasta section. Then it went to two or three, and then it was a four-foot section. Now we have an eight-foot section and it just keeps growing.”

Specialty pastas such as gluten-free and organic also take up roughly 30% of the shelf space for pasta at Toronto’s Summerhill Market, says store manager, Christy McMullen.

But while new gluten-free and nutritious pastas sell well, just slapping on a “gluten-free” or other healthy-ingredient additive doesn’t ensure a sales bump.

“A lot of these new products are great sellers at the start, but then it’s really difficult to get the repeat business. Customers are looking for the better nutritional ingredients, but at the same time are not willing to compromise on taste.” She says Schär’s gluten- free products are a bestseller at Summerhill and taste similar to traditional dry pasta.

Seems there’s something to be said for tradition after all.

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