Cauliflower gnocchi, brown rice orzo, and everyone’s favorite: zoodles. If health-conscious consumers had to list their relationship status with pasta, their response would most likely be, “It’s complicated.” Why not just give up pasta altogether? If that sounds unfathomable to you, you’re not alone. Pasta alternatives are a growing market, and curious consumers buy in. We spoke to seven ingredient-conscious shoppers (people that had purchased some sort of pasta alternative in the past 30 days) to find out what kept them searching for their favorite pasta sub-in. For all seven, internal factors (pulls) and external factors (pushes) far outweighed any obstacles that stood between them and their noodle-y dinners.
Spoken or unspoken, this was the general consensus from the seven one-on-one interviews I conducted last week on alternative pastas. The desire to eat normal food and feel “normal” is the pull—the internal reason why a consumer seeks out pasta substitutes. But here's the catch: they don’t want to make (or eat) a plate full of macaroni.
Why reinvent the wheel? Pasta isn’t broken—but it doesn’t work for everyone. Six out of seven interviewees were following, or had followed, a special diet either by choice or because of medical need. Usually, this was some form of the Paleo or Whole30 diet, and while not all interviewees were actively following the diet to a “T,” all of them had the “rules” in the back of their minds, and thought about them when choosing what to eat. Pasta, or more specifically grains, are off the plate for anyone following Paleo. So, they opt for something akin to noodles rather than breaking the rules.
“I remember feeling excited that I could eat something that resembled ‘normal’ food while doing a strict diet.”
Pasta alternatives gave these ingredient-conscious consumers a way back to what they love, whether it was filling a craving, or a meal they could share with their families.
Will it taste like actual pasta? How hard is this to cook? Will my kid eat dinner tonight? The last time I bought chickpea pasta it came out soggy and “gloopy.” These are just a few of the anxieties consumers face when trying out a new noodle.
One interviewee was in the pasta aisle (fully intending to buy the wheat variety) when she first spotted Jovial Brown Rice Spaghetti. Side-by-side with regular spaghetti, the cost of the brown rice imposter stuck out like a sore thumb. It was a four dollar price difference.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘I can’t justify the cost,’ so I’ll do the blue box with added vegetables, somewhere in the middle.”
She wasn’t alone. Several interviewees noted that pasta alternatives can cost five times as much as traditional. But, she “made a game-time decision.” She had seen a blogger reviewing the pasta on Instagram the day before. The trusted endorsement pushed that box off the shelf and into her basket.
The exception to both the cost and the product conundrum is zoodles and swoodles (sweet potato noodles), which consumers noted are a cheaper choice. But are zoodles really noodles? “We love zoodles,” noted one interviewee, “but they’re just another vegetable. We’ll serve it as the vegetable.” Zucchini and sweet potatoes are both produce items, which means shoppers seeking out these noodle stand-ins never walk down the pasta aisle. The official Whole30 cookbook will teach you how to make zoodles, the perfect push for anyone on day 10.
Cost and taste aside, all alternatives faced one doomsday worry: What will people think of me? Judgment comes in many forms. For some, it’s their kids. For others, it’s parents criticizing their grown-up children’s choices, or friends with opinions of their own. As a result, few thought of fake pastas as “dinner party worthy.”
“Do you read labels?” I would ask. This was met by adamant nodding. “What do you look for when you pick up the box?” I’d probe. Added sugars. Serving size. Ingredients I can pronounce. Protein content.
“I’m always scanning for sugar first. If it has sugar I’ll put it back. It blows my mind how many things have sugar in them, and make me mad.”
Red lentil pasta packs in 26 grams of protein. For consumers looking for protein-rich foods, the 5x cost is usually worth it. “The only ingredient is red lentil flour,” notes one consumer while referring to Lensi Legume Pasta, approvingly.
“So, do you meal plan or make a grocery list?” The answer was almost always yes, until we talked about it for a while. “...well, not this week. Probably 50% of the time.” Making a grocery list is for weeks when you have your act together, though plenty of interviewees admitted that this was not their week that I wondered how often lists actually happened.
“Otherwise I buy staples which I know are flexible… normally I have pasta stocked.”
Pasta is only the tip of the iceberg, it turns out. And that makes sense, when you consider the job alternative pasta has been hired to do: Make me feel like I’m just eating normal food again—without making me feel bad. Consumers crave other modern American comfort foods in healthier forms, too.
“I would like an alternative pizza crust that’s actually good—I miss pizza a lot.”
Over half of the interviewees brought up pizza crust, many noting a negative experience with the cauliflower varieties on the market. Two brought up tacos and tortillas. Chips, bagels, and naturally sweetened ice cream are among other products consumers craved.
“If I could figure out a way to incorporate chickpea into tacos, that’d be great.”
Some substitutes for these products do exist (check out Banza’s chickpea rice!). There are dozens of gluten-free pizza crusts, and several grain-free options. But few get the OK from keen label-readers, and fewer still strike gold when it comes to taste.
Consumers navigate a web of emotions, concerns, and obstacles when choosing products to fit into their life. They want to eat pasta. Non-consumption, which would be the obvious choice if none of these pasta alternatives existed, is at odds with a consumer’s social life, their memories of family meals, and their need to eat something. Pasta is pretty easy to cook and quite flexible, making it a favorite for weeknights.
I interviewed only seven people. But according to the Nielsen Norman Group, after interviewing just 5 people, you’ll start to see patterns in their responses; after that, it’s diminishing returns. While each interviewee had unique circumstances, in many ways their needs overlapped. You begin to map out these needs, and you find a matrix of factors pushing them in one direction, pulling them from their old ways, and obstacles they have to overcome:
Craving familiar food
Desire to feel normal again
Cooking for guests
Desire to feel well
Recommendations from friends
Influencers on Instagram
Nutrient value and protein content
Grocery list making - 50% of the time
Meal planning - 50% of the time
Favorite stores: Trader Joe’s & King Soopers
Has other healthy habits: supplements, exercise, etc.
Will it taste ok?
What will everyone think?
How do I cook this?
What is in this?
Above: Push/Pull/Habit/Anxiety matrix for consumers of pasta alternatives.
So, why not just give up pasta altogether? Alternative pasta adds a note of sanity to your life. It’s a thread of familiarity when you’re cutting things out of your kitchen. It’s easy to make, and has simple ingredients. “It makes me feel normal.” It gets the job done.
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