Carbs remain the quintessential comfort food, recession stats show

When the going gets tough, the tough turn to pasta. That, at least, is the conclusion of a recent report by Mintel on the impact of the recession on American consumers' food purchasing patterns.

From 2007-08, the pasta and pasta-based meals market increased 9.8 per cent to $3.9 billion through FDMx channels, according to the report Pasta and Pasta-based Meals — US.

This, despite the fact food prices escalated 5.5 per cent in 2008, the highest increase since 1990, and the price of wheat reached record highs in March 2008, causing a jump in retail prices.

"Overall, pasta remains a great value and the recession has instigated a resurgence in pasta as a family favourite to stretch the grocery dollar further," the researchers found.

While all of this is good news for pasta-makers, what kinds of pastas do health-conscious customers have to choose from these days?

"Unfortunately, there has been very little innovation in the pasta industry — and the innovations there have been have been more slips and misses," said Kantha Shelke, a principal at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based food science and nutrition think tank. Shelke has a doctorate in cereal chemistry and technology and is writing a book on the global history of pasta.

"The way pasta was originally manufacturerd, it was very good for people with diabetes," Shelke explained. "But the way industry went, the need for speed and greed in manufacturing, typical semolina pasta (coarse durum wheat) is now made in a much finer particle size with much less fibre.

"Given the growing demand for whole grains, it was logical for companies to look into whole wheat pasta, but it is hard to make good quality pasta from whole wheat — it's too chunky, and if you grind it really fine, it turns pasty. What the industry has learned is that people may say they want healthier pasta, but if it doesn't taste good, they won't buy it."

Three standout products
That said, there have been a few innovations. Instead of turning to whole wheat flour, several innovative companies have discovered ways to enrich their semolina pastas, giving them comparable fibre to many whole-wheat varieties.

The Dreamfields pasta brand, made of durum wheat semolina, uses a unique matrix of different hydrocolloids, which coat the starch granules so they are not so vulnerable to enzyme attack in the digestive system — essentially rendering them undigested. This lowers its GI effect to 13, which is 65 percent lower than traditional semolina pasta (with a GI of 38). Launched in 2004, Dreamfields is primarily marketed to dieters and people with diabetes, and is sold in the United States and United Kingdom.

In 2005, pasta-power house Barilla created the Barilla Plus product line made from a multigrain blend that includes semolina, oats, spelt, barley, legumes, ground flaxseeds and oat fibre. Barilla Plus delivers 44 per cent more protein (17g) and almost twice as much fibre (7g) as traditional pasta. It also has 360mg of ALA per 100g (1 cup) uncooked, the company says.

Also in 2005, Shelke designed a new pasta called FiberWise for Foulds Pasta in Libertyville. Made of semolina, flax seed fibre and pea flour, its uniquely slow drying process gives FiberWise a low GI effect, and the highest amount of fibre possible in a food product (12g per serving) without the discomfort associated with high-fibre foods.

"The fact it cooks up to 4.5 times its size also means it helps prevent people from overeating," Shelke said. "It makes you feel full more quickly, so you really can't overeat."

According to Mintel, consumers are taking note of innovations like these. "Innovation in better-for-you pastas is bridging the gap between nutrition and taste, which has been essential to broadening its consumer base," the researchers said.

Roughly half of respondents said less-processed, all-natural and low fat were appealing in their pasta purchases.

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