Convenience-seeking consumers have been really using their noodles this year… or more accurately eating them.

Noodles and noodle-dominated instant pot snacks have posted the strongest value growth in the rice, pasta and noodles category, at 8.1% and 5.4% respectively, while rice has grown 1.8% (albeit from a higher base) and pasta has fallen 0.6% having enjoyed solid growth last year [Nielsen 52 w/e 12 October].

“Noodles perfectly cater for consumers’ needs for taste, convenience and modern cooking trends,” says Pat Thomas, head of insight at Premier Foods, which owns Batchelors and Sharwood’s. “We have seen a raft of innovation from key manufacturers, primarily focusing on the pot snack sector. Today’s time-poor shoppers are really buying into instant flavoured savoury products.”

Premier is building on the success of its Batchelors Deli Boxes – single-serve portions of noodles and pasta in New York-style takeaway cartons – with three new flavours. Sweet & sour noodles hit stores in November, and Bolognese pasta and tomato and chilli pasta variants will follow in the new year.

Earlier in the year, in February, it also launched a TV ad campaign to drive awareness of Sharwood’s Chinese, Indian and wrap kit offerings under the strapline ‘serve up some excitement’. Sharwood’s reported circa 15% value growth following the campaign.

The innovation hasn’t been confined to the big brands, though. Ambient pot noodle brand Kabuto has secured listings in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose with new flavours chilli chicken ramen and prawn tom yum, helping it leap from 20th to 1oth spot.

In the noodle sector, meanwhile, Thai Taste’s gluten-free rice noodles and Vermicelli rice noodle nests, which launched in September, have won listings in Waitrose, and nine premium products from organic Japanese brand Clearspring hit 111 M&S stores in September.

Clearspring is now preparing to launch a vegan noodle broth alongside authentic air-dried Japanese noodles. “Consumers are increasingly leading busy lifestyles, so guaranteed healthy and convenient meal solutions are of paramount importance today,” says founder Christopher Dawson.

Not that focusing on noodles guarantees success. Golden Wonder The Nation’s Noodle has seen last year’s slump accelerate in 2013 and brand owner Symington’s, possibly conceding defeat in the Pot Noodle-dominated instant pot segment, seemingly switch its attention to pasta pot brand Mug Shot, which continues to go from strength to strength.

Meet Brian (above). Since marrying a footballer in 2011, he’s done what any self respecting WAG would do: he’s brought out his own fragrance (“hot like a fever spicy like a chilli”) and fronted a high profile ad campaign for Pot Noodle. The TV ads first aired in June with the strapline ‘Why Try Harder?’ and have helped Pot Noodle maintain its dominant position in instant pot snacks.

Some pasta brands will no doubt be eyeing their instant pot cousins with envy. Pasta is the only sector in decline as our tastes lean increasingly towards the exotic (a trend also evident in pasta cooking sauces – see p158).

Not Napolina though, which has had a stonking year after 2012’s modest 1.8% growth thanks to a combination of hefty marketing spend (it’s sponsored ITV show Gino’s Italian Escapes this year), link deals with other Napolina products and good old fashioned price cuts, which have contributed to a 5.4% decline in average price for the brand.

It was thanks largely to Napolina that brands outperformed own-label in pasta, as they did in every category except noodles. In rice, number one brand Uncle Ben’s even turned around last year’s decline to post 1.1% growth, driven in no small part by a 6% decline in average price.

Tilda, meanwhile,  highlights the importance of offering a point of difference from  own-label with campaigns such as Mums Helping Mums, which has donated almost a million meals to expectant mothers in developing countries in the past year via specially marked packs of its Basmati rice.

“Initiatives such as these are adding credibility and value to brands within the category, helping them compete with the own label,” says Camilla Sheeley, senior brand manager at Tilda. In April, Tilda pulled off another coup when it became the first rice brand to feature in the window of Harrods, with its Vintage range, and in June it launched  Humara (see p155).

Riso Gallo should take note. Value and volume have fallen despite the addition of two new flavours to its Risotto Box range.  It’s hoping to turn things around with NPD in the new year. “The established Pronto range will be adding black truffle, seafood medley and paella flavours, and the Expresso risotto range will include new pouches for venere rice and three grains, a blend of spelt, barley and rice,” says UK MD Jason Morrison.

Such innovation will be key if the brands are to continue to outgrow own-label – and rice and pasta are to challenge the nation’s burgeoning love of noodles in 2014.

Read The Grocer’s full Top Products Survey.

Top Launch: Humara Tilda

How do you sell microwavable rice to consumers who are used to cooking it in a pot? You offer it in nostalgic flavours that remind them of their childhoods, that’s how. Tilda did just that with the June launch of its Humara range, aimed at giving young time-pressed Asians who have lost the culinary skills of their elders a taste of their mums’ cooking. The five-strong range includes khichdi, a ‘comfort food’, and kheer, a rice pudding with cardamom and nutmeg. Genius.