Italy Loses Its Taste for Pasta; Consumption Has Dropped 23% in Past Decade

Italy Loses Its Taste for Pasta

Consumption Has Dropped 23% in Past Decade

MANUELA MESCO

Oct. 11, 2013 2:27 p.m. ET

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MILAN—When Sara Chiauzzi was growing up in Naples, pasta had pride of place on the family table, and she and her family often ate it twice a day. But now that she has a family of her own, the 38-year-old mother of two wouldn’t dream of serving so much pasta. Worried about its fattening effects, she and her husband eat it no more than a few times a week, favoring couscous, meat and vegetables instead. “Metabolism changes when you approach 40,” she says, “and pasta is out of the question.”Ten years ago, Italian families ate an average of 40 kilograms, or 88 pounds, a year. But now Italians are spurning Italy’s comfort food as foreign cuisine finally gains a toehold in Italy. Italians—particularly women—increasingly see pasta as fattening, boring and time-consuming. Pasta consumption in Italy has fallen to 31 kilos (70.6 pounds) per family, sending everyone from pasta makers to cookbook publishers scrambling to adjust.

“It’s a perfect storm,” says Cinzia Marchetti , head of consumer insights at Italy’s Barilla S.p.A., the world’s largest pasta maker, whose Italian pasta sales fell 3% last year. “A number of factors had been there for quite a while, but they are exploding all at once now,” she adds.

Italians’ devotion to pasta dates to ancient Rome. The abundance of durum wheat—pasta’s main ingredient—in the Italian peninsula eventually gave rise to the first pasta cookbooks. Pasta’s dominant place in the Italian diet was secured during World War II, when food was rationed and meat and fish were almost impossible to find. Gragnano, a town near Naples, counted 150 different pasta makers.

Even today, there are at least 500 pasta shapes in Italy, as well as hard-and-fast rules about which sauces go with which pasta. Pesto sauce, for instance, is typically served with linguine and carbonara with bucatini.

For decades pasta was synonymous with Italians’ exemplary way of life. “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti,” actress Sophia Loren famously responded when asked how she maintained her trim figure.

But today, few Italians would agree. The share of women between 26 and 30 years old who believe pasta is fattening increased 26% from 2008 to 2012, according to a Nielsen survey. And among 26- to 30-year-old men, the number who think pasta makes people fat increased 16%.

Meanwhile, sushi bars have exploded in Italy, and Chinese and Indian fare is gaining a toehold. “Our food tradition is becoming more similar to North American and North European ones,” says Gabriele Riccardi , professor of human nutrition at University Federico II in Naples.

Italians are also bringing foreign recipes home. The cooking school managed by Cucina Italiana, Italy’s leading cooking magazine, now offers Japanese and U.S. courses. Even “hamburgers have been becoming more of a trend lately,” Fabio Zago , the magazine’s executive chef, says.

Even the Cucchiaio d’Argento cookbook, Italy’s version of Betty Crocker, has reduced the number of pasta dishes in its latest editions and increased the recipes for cous-cous, rice and meat dishes. It has also tried to revamp some traditional recipes to meet the demand for less pasta. For instance, it proposes a new cannelloni recipe in which a thin layer of Parmesan cheese replaces the pasta roll that holds together the meat and sauce, says Stefano Caffarri , head of the cookbook’s website.

Elsewhere, more and more Italians are turning to delis offering prepared dishes with meat and vegetables. Consumption of frozen fish and meat dishes has soared 70% in the past decade, while ready-made vegetable dishes grew 50%, according to the Italian Institute for Frozen Food. Sales of salad bags have also soared as mixed salads gain at lunch.

Pasta makers are attempting to respond. Barilla, which has about 35% of the Italian pasta market, has sought to beat back the idea that pasta is fattening. It cites pasta’s calorie count—365 calories a portion—prominently in its television ads and promotes pasta’s low glycemic count. It recently launched an app that helps count calories and is pushing lower-calorie recipes on its website. It is also about to introduce a pasta that is free of gluten, the ingredient often blamed for the bloated feeling associated with pasta.

Barilla, which is expanding abroad to counter the long-term erosion of the Italian market, has signed an agreement with McDonald’s Corp. MCD +0.32% to make a series of new pasta dishes in the hope of recapturing young consumers. In a bid to appeal to Italians’ nostalgia for their national dish, it has also launched gauzy ads featuring families sitting down to pasta dinners.

Mom-and-pop restaurants, which are serving fewer traditional pasta dishes, are trying to jazz up the dish to appeal to more demanding diners. Even such established chefs as Gualtiero Marchesi have been jazzing up their menus with pasta recipes. The chef—the owner of two restaurants in Italy and the founder of a professional cooking school there—has invented pasta dishes featuring cinnamon and honey, as well as caviar.

“Everything must change in order to survive.” Mr. Marchesi says. “Cuisine has to be modernized too.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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