In the past year, the rice and noodles sectors have definitely benefited from the nation's increasing appetite for ethnic cuisines. However, the growing trend has not been such a boom for pasta, which has struggled to maintain sales in the face of competition.

As the smallest sector within the total pasta, noodles and rice market, pasta sales declined 1% to £120.7m.

The decline was driven by the own label sector, which was down 0.3% as a whole, and by a number of the branded players, including Buitoni and Dolmio, suffering big losses. The former, which is still the second-bestselling brand, dropped 35.4%, while in fourth spot, Dolmio fared nearly as badly with a drop of 23.2%.

Dolmio's fall was in spite of brand owner Masterfoods launching a My Dolmio pasta brand for kids in March. The newcomer was backed by a £2m marketing campaign, including TV advertising.

Napolina completely bucked the trend however, and was the sector's success story of the year. Sales jumped an impressive 34.7% to £14.3m. The performance saw Napolina leap ahead of Buitoni into first place in this year's top 20 and its sales are now double those of its nearest rival.

Third-placed De Cecco even beat that in terms of growth, swelling its sales by 39.6%, putting it into third place among the bestselling pasta brands.

Rice continues to be the biggest sector and consumers' appetite for the versatile carbohydrate shows no signs yet of being sated. In the past year, the £264m rice market rose 4.4%, driven mainly by the popular microwaveable sector, which continues to produce impressive growth figures, helped by consumers' ever-increasing search for convenient offerings.

A substantial chunk of sales has also been driven by 'two for' and 'three for' offers, favoured predominantly by the leading players.

Uncle Ben's and Tilda remain the top brands, in first and second place respectively. Uncle Ben's grew its sales by a mighty 25%, thanks to a strong performance in pouches, while Tilda produced a 12.5% rise.

Natco has dropped out of the top five, together with Patak's, but Batchelors has held on to its place, despite a fall of 5.2%. Riso Gallo and Crosse & Blackwell now form the remaining constituents of the top five, with the former boosting sales by an impressive 32.9% year-on-year.

Yet, despite the sector's growing popularity, rice still has a comparatively low annual consumption per head in Britain and so still offers plenty of opportunity for growth.

The basmati segment continues to add value to the total rice market, as do convenience options, particularly the microwaveable format.

The UK is the largest user of basmati rice in the EU and, although demand has traditionally been driven by the nation's large Indian and Pakistani communities, its popularity is growing within the mainstream population.

To this end, basmati producers have continued to target the mainstream audience, who tend to buy smaller packs than the average Asian consumer. Indo European Foods, owner of the Kohinoor brand, for example, has launched a 5kg foil-wrapped bag of basmati into Tesco as a smaller version of its most popular, but bulky, 10kg packs.

To capitalise on the growth in both microwaveable and basmati rice, Tilda added Chinese Mushroom Basmati - a blend of basmati, Chinese mushrooms, white wine and soy sauce - and what it claims is the first microwaveable brown basmati option to its expanding Rizazz range of two-minute rice.

The New Covent Garden Food Company has also brought something new to the arena, in the shape of microwaveable risotto pots. The newcomer was introduced at the beginning of the year and is an attempt to move risotto into the mainstream.

The focus on health is something the noodles category took to heart in the past year as it concentrated on improving quality to help boost its rather downmarket image.

This seems to be paying dividends so far. Noodle sales grew 2% to £158.2m last year boosted by strong innovation from Sharwood's and Amoy, which jumped 26.3% and 27.2% respectively.

The rapid growth of Japanese noodle bar chain Wagamama also helped to boost the noodle's image as a healthy and modern food, and it moved into retail in the second half of the year.

As for bestselling brand Pot Noodle, it managed to turn last year's relative nosedive in sales into just a trickle of decline at 2%.

Sales losses were arrested by the brand leader squaring up to its health lobby detractors at the beginning of the year with a hard-hitting relaunch, which positioned it as a healthier snack option, following last year's reformulation.

The activity included reducing the salt content across the range by an average of 28% and adding on-pack flashes declaring 'only 5% fat' and 'no artificial colours and preservatives'.

To go with the changes, owner Unilever forked out £10m on a campaign that positioned Pot Noodle as the Fuel of Britain and showed it being dug up from mines in Wales. It got the brand into trouble in some quarters as usual (see left) but left its 'slag' image on the slag heap.

Finally, keen to steal a march on arch rival Pot Noodle, Batchelors launched a low-fat version of its Super Noodles To Go offering. The company supported the brand with a £3.5m media campaign for the year leading to a 4% increase in sales.n