"If it's not made out of wheat, it's not pasta."
That was fresh-pasta specialist Peter Robertson's response when the patrons at his farmers market stand began requesting gluten-free options in the mid-2000s. Today, he can't help laughing as he admits that most of his business, RP's Pasta Company and a spinoff, Taste Republic, is now gluten-free.
Robertson was one of the first operators in a product category now worth more than $250 million annually in the United States (according to estimates by SPINS, Information Resources, Mintel and Green Circle Capital in July 2018): "Better-for-you" pasta alternatives. The Gluten-Free Mall's online store has more than 50 sans-wheat pasta options, Trader Joe's has nine alt-pastas under its private label, and Whole Foods sells more than a dozen brands in its dry, frozen and refrigerated sections. The offerings range from simple $2 gluten-free spaghetti and spiralized raw zucchini "noodles" to Capello's paleo-friendly almond flour fettuccine that rings in at $11 per box. The array of innovative noodles features various flavors, textures, ingredients and nutritional profiles, and it sends a clear message that Americans are embracing the reinvention of pasta.
Robertson honed his craft in Italy, where durum wheat and eggs were not optional; they defined pasta. He recalled that sales of traditional dry pasta took a hit around 2003 when the Atkins diet craze demonized carbohydrates, but his sales of fresh pasta escaped the fad relatively unscathed. It wasn't until a close friend was devastated by her celiac disease diagnosis that Robertson decided to experiment with gluten-free pastas. The farmers market crowd raved about the final product, and Robertson couldn't even tell the difference between his original pastas and the new al dente brown rice creation.
"That's when the switch went off in my head," Robertson said. "If there's no compromise, then what's the issue? If it's going to eat like pasta, then I can call it pasta."
As more brown rice, beans, quinoa and lentils are transformed into cavatappi, spaghetti and farfalle, pasta's reputation seems to be evolving from "empty carb" to "superfood." This trend is certainly exciting for shoppers with dietary restrictions, like Robertson's friend, but the leading brands are not targeting just the expected demographic of gluten-avoiding consumers.
Banza, Explore Cuisine, Tolerant and several other brands specializing in pulse pastas are shifting the focus of pasta alternatives away from carbs, instead highlighting high-protein content on the front of their packages. Banza's chickpea pasta boxes boast 25 grams of protein (per 3.5-ounce serving; 14 grams for a 2-ounce serving), while the box for Explore Cuisine's edamame-and-mung-bean fettuccine showcases front and center that it delivers 24 grams of protein (per 2-ounce serving).
Protein was always the driving force behind Explore Cuisine. The company was born out of a trip to China when founder Joe Spronz tried his first protein-rich pasta. That experience coincided with a growing concern for his picky, pasta-loving daughter's protein intake. Protein-packed pasta seemed (and tasted) like the perfect solution. It wasn't designed to address gluten allergies, but it happened to tackle that, too.
"I think when we look at the growth in the category - which is about 30 to 35 percent at the moment - it's really driven by this broader acceptance by a much broader group of people who are just looking to try something different, looking at plant-based food, looking at reduction in red meat consumption and looking to find alternative proteins," Explore Cuisine chief executive Greg Forbes said.
Banza founder and CEO Brian Rudolph recognizes that in addition to being attractive to those who can't eat gluten, his chickpea pasta appeals to protein-seeking vegans and vegetarians, as well as parents of picky eaters who want nutritious options for their children. Protein is a major selling point, but he ultimately describes his target customer as a "healthy realist." He knows that consumers are becoming more health-conscious, but he also recognizes that they don't want to "totally abandon the foods they love."
To reach the gluten-avoiders, protein-seekers, healthy realists and everyone in-between, Banza insists its pastas be sold on the "mainstream pasta aisle."
"We want to position Banza as the best option for everyone," Rudolph said in an email. "It's been exciting to see major grocery chains merging the 'alternative' pastas with the regular pastas."
This shift on alternative pasta isn't isolated to the pasta aisles of Whole Foods and natural markets; it is permeating the shelves of grocery chains around the country. Banza is the fastest-selling pasta brand at Target stores, and even the 142-year-old pasta giant Barilla launched a legume noodle line in 2018, surging pulse pasta into the mainstream market. The Italian brand now offers earthy brown boxes packed with nutrient-dense, single-ingredient choices: Chickpea and red lentil penne pastas.
"It is undoubtedly a big step for an Italian brand to create a legume-based pasta, but we think this is a natural product for our portfolio," Jean-Pierre Comte, president of Barilla Americas, said in an email. "All our products are inspired by Italian lifestyle and the Mediterranean way of eating, and legumes are a central part this philosophy."
As the market becomes more saturated and big brands move into the space, the pioneers don't feel threatened by the growing competition in their once-niche product category. Instead, they see the influx of newcomers as validation of their mission to revolutionize pasta.
"Yes, I look at brands like Banza and Ancient Harvest as competitors," Forbes said. "But we're all driving a consistent message and promoting choice, and ultimately, we're all benefiting from the growth of the category itself."
Rudolph agrees. As long as they develop products that are "honestly nutritious," the entry of new brands into the category is encouraging.
"When more shelf space is dedicated to legume pasta, people eat more legume pasta. It's a virtuous cycle," Rudolph said. "We're committed to making bean pasta the de facto standard and bringing a healthier pasta to more people."
So, what does all this innovation and expansion mean for the pasta aisle? If bean pasta does become the standard, will the traditional carb-heavy, wheat-based pastas be pushed off the shelves to make room for nutritionally dense noodles?
Probably not. Even the pasta innovators predict that alternative and traditional pastas will simply co-exist in grocery store aisles. Better-for-you pasta may be growing, but traditional pasta is not going anywhere.
"The decision to launch the new Barilla Legume pastas is not a reflection of how the Barilla semolina pastas or Barilla Group is performing, but rather in response to, and in anticipation of, consumer demands for legume-based products, including pasta," Comte said. "Our hope for Barilla Legume is that it will be a great addition to people's current pasta favorites - not a replacement for them."
This article was written by Alyssa Cronin, Special to The Washington Post.