What’s trending in pasta and rice?

30 May 2024, 06:00 AM
  • Pasta, rice and sauces are the bedrock of quick, easy, nutritious meals...and as Speciality Food discovers, consumers are looking for better quality, wholesome products across these categories
What’s trending in pasta and rice?

The store cupboard is the savvy, time-poor cook’s best friend. A culinary treasure chest to lean into for bowls of comfort, and meals in a hurry when there’s not a minute to spare.

Nudging up against the tins of beans, pulses and tomatoes, packets of stock, jars of spices and condiments there will almost always be pasta and rice. The reliable, filling backbone of thousands of dishes, from family-friendly oven bakes, to oozing, buttery risottos.

As with any food, quality makes a huge difference, and consumers are thinking more and more about where these essentials come from, and how they might benefit their health. They’re also, retailers say, becoming more attuned to the environmental credentials of what goes into their basket.

Pasta and rice trends

As the cost of living continues to put a squeeze on households, creating restaurant-quality dishes at home has almost become the norm, with eating out reserved for special occasions. Bruno Zuccola of Valentina Deli says this has been one of the most enduring trends in the pasta and rice category since the pandemic. “People come into Valentina Deli and buy a quality artisan pasta and delicious organic sauce for under £10, which will easily feed a family of four, and almost certainly with leftovers too,” he explains. “When you compare this to your average restaurant meal, where it costs a minimum of £12 for one average plate, of course people are moving special occasion meals into their own homes in order to save money.”

To meet the needs of these shoppers, Bruno says retailers must look beyond the average, mass market pasta, rice and sauce varieties, offering something special, and authentic, to help customers put a slice of Italy on the table.

In pasta, the Valentina Deli team has noticed a shift in the popularity of certain shapes recently, with short pastas definitely leading the charge. “Rigatoni, penne and fusilli have particularly surged in popularity,” Bruno adds, saying the move towards these varieties is occurring, he thinks, because of the versatility of these varieties. “These shapes offer excellent sauce-holding capabilities, while also being adaptable to a wide range of recipes, from traditional Italian dishes, to creative fusion cuisine. Additionally, short pastas tend to appeal to a broader audience, including families with children, who may find them more manageable to eat.”

Sally Assinder of Garofalo, says spaghetti, penne and fusilli continue to appeal, but adds the brand is seeing increased demand for speciality pasta shapes, largely influenced by social media trends. “Fusilli lunghi stands out for its visual appearance,” she says. “We are seeing the same with orzo, which is also popular among influencers.”

Sales of wholewheat pasta are also on the up, Sally adds. “Although we have quite a variety of wholewheat pasta shapes, it is the traditional shapes showing the largest increase. There has been a lot of media coverage on gut health and the gut microbiome recently, with more specific and greater attention given to the benefits of wholegrains versus refined grains.”

Once considered the ‘poor relation’ to classic pasta, Sally says wholewheat versions have come a long way, with significant advancements in production methods, which “allows for a finer grind of the wholewheat flour. This results in a smoother texture and reduced grittiness in the final product. Overall, these advancements have contributed to making modern wholewheat pasta more palatable and appealing to a wider audience.”

Addison Gill of Seggiano says this brand is also seeing growth across its speciality pastas – particularly ancient grain and gluten free options. This has led to a programme of NPD, and the release of a new line of organic ancient grains pastas, catering to the “interest in wholewheat, and grains like khorasan kamut and einkorn. These varieties provide a delicious and nutritious twist on classic pasta shapes like busiate, lumaconi and orzo.”

When it comes to rice, Gianfranco Perri of Just Gourmet Foods says the attention customers are giving the specialist wholesaler’s Gli Aironi Carnaroli Affumicato (smoked rice) is undeniable, and points to home cooks and chefs being a bit more experimental with Italian cuisine. “It elevates a risotto dish to new levels,” he explains, adding that smoked rice works “wonderfully with seafood, and has the natural creaminess of a great Carnaroli.”

Why should you buy artisan pasta?

There is, undoubtedly, an almost limitless supply of pasta and rice available to retailers today…so why should you, when considering your stock list, push better quality products up the agenda?

Bruno says it’s the job of independents to focus on delivering superior ingredients and traditional flavours, which differentiate them from supermarkets, where mass production and affordability drive the stock list.

“At Valentina we ensure that most of our products offer various tiers within their categories, organising our ranges according to a ‘good, better, best’ system,” he reveals. “Even our most basic, entry-level pasta, Rummo, surpasses the quality of what most supermarkets offer, crafted with bronze die extruded durum wheat. And then when we introduce customers to our ‘best’ pasta offerings, there’s simply no comparison to what you find in a supermarket.”

Independents should seek out small batch artisan made pastas, crafted with high-quality ingredients, Bruno adds. “Our offerings include fresh egg pasta, truffle-infused pasta, squid ink pasta and more. Not only do these excel in taste, but they also maintain their shape, even when slightly overcooked!”

This is a sentiment Gianfranco echoes, pointing to the higher protein content of artisan pasta, which not only holds its shape, but offers consumers (in an age of carb consciousness) better quality carbohydrates.

“Our recommendation to retailers is ‘know your customer’ and, of course, cater for different wallets, but don’t dismiss selling a higher quality line, as people love to be able to upgrade for a special meal, or when they simply want to treat themselves to a new experience.”

On the subject of rice, Gianfranco says Italian grains are of exceptional quality, and spending a bit more in this category will pay dividends in terms of both flavour and nutrition. “We source our rice from Gli Aironi which is an expert in rice production, taking huge care to ensure the nutritional integrity of its final product. Covering several different rice varieties (not simply the expected risotto rice options) the brand’s products look great on shelf, and we find that retailers can offer a range which goes above the commodity nature of the category, better engaging customers with inspiration around cooking and flavour.”

Gli Aironi, Gianfranco adds, has been developed over five generations of the same family, committed to sustainable agriculture and protecting the delicate wetland environment where they farm, including the population of grey herons which live there.

“They are a progressive business which is always seeking ways to minimise their impact and ensure that they are nurturing the health of the land that they call home.”

This level of traceability is something consumers are searching for, says Addison. “By going beyond generic brands, you’re catering to a growing customer base that values taste, transparency, and ethical sourcing.” Traceability allows you to “build trust with your customers, and effectively manage your reputation, as you can confidently communicate the origin and quality of the ingredients.”

What does IGP mean?

Protected origin status can help boost the shelf appeal of any product, including pasta and rice, says Sally. In the UK we use PGI, while in Italy it’s IGP (Indcazione Geografica Protetta) that binds foods to the region where they are produced.

The town of Gragnano, just south of Naples, is considered the birthplace of the pasta industry, thanks to its natural spring water sources used to produce the dough, and an idyllic climate, which lends itself perfectly to drying the finished product. Only pasta made within the municipality of Gragnano, following a strict set of rules, can claim Pasta Di Gragnano IGP status, which Sally says is a key indicator of exceptional quality.

To be designated, pasta must only be made with high quality durum wheat semolina (13% protein or above), and local spring water, be extruded through a bronze die, and be dried slowly, and packed within 24 hours to prevent further moisture loss.

Garofalo has been making pasta in Gragnano since 1789, and remains one of the most well-known producers of Pasta Di Gragnano IGP.

New free from pastas tap into customer demand

Wholewheat and alt pastas (made with different grains) are shifting into the mainstream. As Sally has already explained, gut health is topping the agenda for consumers, and many are swapping out their usual store cupboard essentials for products with bigger health claims.

Kelly Shaw of Windmill Organic, which recently released new protein-packed pastas made with pulses under the Profusion label, says, “Customers in the pasta category are increasingly seeking products that offer more than just basic carbohydrates. According to recent market research from Mintel, 56% of consumers express interest in pasta, rice, and noodles containing added healthy ingredients.”

Convenience is a key factor too, Kelly adds, with interest in quick-cook or ready-to-eat pasta options on the up. “Additionally, there’s a growing demand for pasta varieties that cater to specific dietary preferences or requirements, such as gluten free or plant based options. Overall, consumers want pasta products that align with their health goals without compromising on taste or convenience.”

Windmill Organics’ Profusion brand has been designed to harness the power of nature through functional foods packed with organic plant protein – using chickpeas, red lentils and peas. 

Kelly says the decision to invest in this NPD has been driven by data showing 50% of consumers have a desire to be healthier since the pandemic, with 60% wanting to add more protein to their diet. The products appeal “not just to fitness enthusiasts, but also to a growing audience of middle-aged consumers, those looking to manage their weight, and those eating a plant-based diet.”

Suma has also recently increased its pasta line, offering an array of new organic, gluten-free oat pastas which mimic the texture of the wheat-based classic perfectly.

“We try to give people choice and options,” says Suma’s Sophie Ziegler-Jones. “We have our wheat pastas, many of which are made from heritage grains, and gluten free options. Our new oat pasta is one of the first to market, and we have some NPD going on in other types of legume-based pastas.”

The demand for gluten free products endures, Sophie says, with products in the category being chosen not only by coeliacs and those with intolerances, but by consumers searching for ingredients that feel lighter, and more digestible.

“Our oat pasta is made with a combination of oat, corn and rice flours, so it’s got quite a delicate taste, and a tender texture. It works really well in a pasta salad,” she adds. “I think customers are looking for quality pasta, authentic pasta and for unusual ingredients – and this ticks all of those boxes.” 

Shapes include rigatoni, linguine and casarecce – made in Italy, using bronze die casts. They all cook quickly, making them ideal for time-pushed shoppers. “It can be quite easy to go over when cooking pasta,” Sophie admits. “But our oat pastas are a bit more forgiving and hold their firmness well.”

Beyond its texture and taste, Sophie says the brand hits the mark on sustainability as well. “The pasta comes in a cardboard box made from sustainably managed forests, and it lasts just as long as it would in plastic packaging.

“And our heritage wheat pasta is made with organic wheat grown by a Fairtrade co-operative of farmers, ground in their own mill, and mixed with local hillside spring water before being crafted on site, using 100% renewable energy. 

“Being Fairtrade means a transparent and fair method is used to calculate the price the farmers get, which reduces the volatility in market price, and gives a guarantee the farmers harvest will be collected and paid for at an agreed rate.”

Within the co-operative work is ongoing into growing and trialling ancient organic wheat varieties which will adapt to challenging climates, promoting sustainable agriculture, and better soil fertility.

“The aim of this co-operative was to create opportunities in abandoned hillsides, supporting healthy growing, and supporting the life and dignity of land that had previously been neglected,” Sophie adds. “This has been going on for the last 50 years, and now supports the families of around 300 farmers.”

Addison agrees that organic farming practices remain crucial to consumers who are “increasingly aware” of the impact on land of fertilisers and pesticides, seeking sustainable options which allow them to “vote with their wallets for a healthier planet”

“Seggiano champions organic farming, using minimum-intervention agriculture and local cultivar preservation to nourish healthy ecosystems and a thriving food system,” Addison says, adding that the commitment extends beyond certification, with a focus on traceable, high-quality ingredients. “We avoid industrial blends, favouring single-source ingredients that connect food to its terroir and guarantee origin.”

Choosing sustainable rice

Much has been written about the sustainability of rice, with bad practice in the industry pointed out by environmentalists. But a new breed of rice purveyor is coming up through the ranks. Sun Valley Rice in California works with farms within a 100-mile radius to bring nutritious, sustainably grown kernels (processed in its solar-powered mill) to market. Nice Rice launched to sell heritage basmati rice with fairer prices for farmers, and a lower carbon impact.

And IBIS rice is making moves to show how sustainable rice can be, giving better choice to retailers and consumers. Al Overton, the brand’s UK advisor says UK consumers want to make better choices but “much of the time we are so far removed from where our food comes from, how it is produced, or who it is grown by, that it is impossible to know why better options are needed and the impact that they can have.”

Al says consumers are more used to choosing chocolate or coffee ethically, but when it comes to staple foods and everyday crops that make up the bulk of our diets “we have no visibility to how they are grown”.

He takes rice as an example. “It is generally bought and sold more than 10 times between the customer who eats it and the farmer who grew it. Farmers who are often stuck in a hand-to-mouth cycle, with no ability to invest in their future, and no insurance against the impact that climate change or water shortages could have on the harvest.”

IBIS Rice is proving different business models are possible, by short-cutting lengthy supply chain models, working with more than 2,000 farming families in Cambodia, living in the last remaining indigenous forest of South-East Asia, home to approximately 200 endangered species.

“They grow one crop a year of organic rice in rhythm with the seasonal flooding of the land and, in exchange for their stewardship of the forest, are paid a 70% premium for their crop, given training on climate resilience, free seed, and pre-harvest financing if needed. All packing and processing is done by IBIS Rice in Cambodia, meaning extra jobs and income for rural communities.”

True Origin Foods is also striving to offer a more sustainable rice product to UK consumers, and has been importing fairly traded fine foods from Africa and Asia for 15 years, with a mission to promote ‘climate justice’.

Customers love buying products such as the unique Malawian Kilombero rice because, “they know that selling these delicious foods also provides a livelihood and hope for farmers struggling with the effects of climate change,” says founder John Riches. 

When retailers take time to consider the ethics and sourcing of commodity foods such as rice it in turn gives them a sense of involvement and partnership,” John adds. “They know that by buying these great products they are helping to provide a future for farmers in Africa and Asia, helping to combat climate change, and enabling them to provide education and a future for their children. That’s an encouraging thought.”


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