Analysis by Sarah Hardcastle Convenient, versatile, inexpensive ­ pasta has a long list of virtues, all of which are helping to make it an increasingly important part of our diet. Yet despite its rising popularity, consumption is still low in the UK ­ 2.5kg per person a year ­ significantly lower than on the continent where consumption is more than double this amount. In Italy, average consumption is 28kg per head. This low level of penetration represents a huge opportunity for retailers to develop and grow the category. This is confirmed by Taylor Nelson Sofres Superpanel's latest figures which show that the total market, at £314.5m, is still relatively small compared to other categories, but growing at a healthy 10%. Within this, some sectors are doing spectacularly well, notably ambient pasta sauces, up 17.6%, and fresh pasta, gaining 10% over the last year. Surprisingly, fresh pasta sauces, a sector tailor-made for innovation and excitement, has turned its spectacular 22% rise in 1999 to a small decline of 1% this year. The value of dry pasta has also fallen from 5.5% growth in 1999 to ­0.5% this year, though volume has risen 4.5% in the current period. The dominance of own label in these two sectors has led to a low level of advertising and consumer education, and is widely held to be the reason for fresh sauces and dry pasta not fulfilling their potential. Barilla UK managing director Steve Gray says dry pasta is more than 80% own label and receives negligible advertising. "As a result the category operates as a commodity with 85% of sales being in low priced own label brands. "The market is very much skewed towards young families and higher income households, and while consumers like pasta for its taste, convenience, low price and nutritional value, they have little product understanding, often lack confidence in cooking pasta and tend to believe all pastas are the same." Chilled foods marketing manager Clare Brown of Hazlewood Foods, the leading supplier of own label fresh pasta sauces, has similar views. "Low penetration is a big issue in fresh sauces. We have to find a way of getting people to buy into them. Partly this is a question of getting quality, flavours and prices right. But, in the main, growth is being held back by lack of consumer awareness and understanding of the benefits of fresh. Chilled is not getting the push it needs, and that's something that needs to be worked on to get it moving." This year the multiples have started to redress the situation, branching into the premium end with a range of ambitious and adventurous fresh sauce and pasta recipes, and broadening their dry pasta lines with traditionally made products. Sainsbury fresh pasta and sauce buyer Martin Phippen says the purpose is to build penetration. "It's a young category with huge potential over the next five years. And there are very few categories like that left in grocery." Its new premium dry pasta lines are being promoted on gondola ends. Safeway is heavily promoting its new foodie range, The Best, which includes premium fresh pasta and sauces, both in store and through a marketing campaign. Fresh pasta buyer Catherine Lee says store staff are being given tastings of the entire range so they can advise customers. Though unusual recipes generate interest and excitement in fresh sauces, the top sellers are mainstream Italian varieties ­ napoletana, carbonara, tomato & mascarpone, four cheese and arrabbiata, according to Hazlewood's Brown. She sees this trend continuing. "The main focus now is on getting the Italian product right. We'll be seeing more authentic ingredient sauces from Italy in the future." Product manager Jane Metcalfe of Pasta Reale, brand leader in fresh sauces and pasta, sees a move away from simple, Italian recipes. "Our sauces are Italian inspired, but country specific flavours are blurring and starting to fall under a general Mediterranean banner. At the same time new products take inspiration from a wider ingredient base, particularly since the emergence of fresh ethnic sauces and meat and fish accompaniments." Metcalfe says filled pasta, which comprises 63% of fresh pasta, is the most buoyant area of the sector, growing at nearly 19%. The company's core brand Duetto is its bestseller, while its recently launched chargrill vegetables, mustard & wine pasta has become the fastest selling variety in its three-strong Ristorante range. Its most recent launches are Sacchettini (small filled pasta sacks) and an organic line. Innovation and correct merchandising are important to keep the market growing, says Metcalfe. "Sales can be boosted by segmenting the fixture into different levels of usage experience and meal occasion," says Metcalfe The company is putting much emphasis on educating consumers through merchandising material and recipes. Brand power, and its marketing spend, is evident in the rising sales in brand-dominated ambient pasta sauces. Pedigree Masterfoods' Dolmio is the leader with nearly 21% share of the total wet sauce market [Information Resources]. Michael Jenkins, head of external relations, says this has been achieved by meeting consumer needs with a variety of sauce formats for different occasions. The range includes Pasta Bake and 2-step which aims to create restaurant taste' at home. Stir-In, for mixing into freshly cooked pasta, is a hit with younger couples and singles who can create a meal in minutes. Similarly, Just Heat & Serve in a microwaveable pouch has been designed for consumers with little time to spare, he says. In spite of these developments, the company says Dolmio Bolognese 500g is still the bestseller in the Italian sauce market as a whole. Other big sellers are Van den Bergh Foods' Ragú, the number two sauce brand. Culinary category controller Alison Cousin says growth is being driven by clear label communication of sauce usage, family jars, and TV advertising for its latest extension, Ragú Specialé. Its red and white lasagne sauces are growing at 36% year on year, while its premium Five Brothers launched a year ago is now a £2m brand. A Five Brothers cream variant has been introduced. "Quality cream and cheese sauces is a growing area and one we want to develop," Cousin adds. Sacla has broadened its range with new vegetable based pesto and pasta sauces launched this autumn. Brand manager Isabella von Mesterhazy says there's a strong demand for vegetable based products. "Recent research has also revealed a growing market among young, aspirational men, which we are targeting with our new spicy pepper & tomato pasta sauce." Though London is the main outlet for pesto sales, Mesterhazy says demand is growing throughout the UK. With 40% year on year growth, Loyd Grossman pasta sauces claims to be the 15th fastest growing fmcg brand [ACNielsen]. Best sellers are tomato & basil and tomato & chilli, says HL/Chivers Hartley brand marketing controller Yvonne Adam. "We're now working on refreshing the range." The brand has moved into premium dry pasta with three shapes and two long products, made with top quality desert durum wheat in the traditional manner using bronze dies to create a rough texture. Mal Pullen, director of maker Pasta Foods, says brands are growing at the expense of own label in dry pasta because consumers are looking for better quality and trading up. {{FOCUS SPECIALS }}