There are few things more comforting than a big bowl of pasta. Noodles of one kind or another are a staple in virtually every culture worldwide. Fom soba to spaghetti, these carby basics — most commonly made from wheat or rice — have their place in world-class restaurants and the most amateur of kitchens.
But even if noodles are a universally-loved culinary cornerstone (and a $60 billion industry, globally), they’re not impervious to the winds of change. As alternative and restricted diets become better-known in the mainstream, food scientists and startups are finding new ways to make noodles that offer something different. And consumers are taking notice.
As awareness continues to spread about celiac disease and related intolerances or allergies, consumers are looking more and more into gluten– and wheat-free pasta alternatives. And it’s big business: Currently estimated around $909 million, the gluten-free pasta market is expected to reach a valuation of over $1 billion by 2025. And gluten avoiders aren’t the only ones pushing for different kinds of pasta. Thanks in part to the continued popularity of the keto diet, weight- and health-conscious consumers are shying away from carbs in favor of diets high in protein and fat. For a slew of reasons, people today are hoping to get something else out of their favorite pasta and noodle dishes. It’s no longer enough for a gluten-free pasta to just taste like the regular kind — it’s got to have some additional nutrition benefits as well.
Pasta that packs a punch
For those looking to skip gluten or just add more protein to their favorite meals, new options abound. The company Explore Cuisine sells a variety of pastas made from non-traditional, high-protein plant ingredients like edamame, chickpeas, and lentils. Their spirulina and edamame spaghetti, for instance, packs a whopping 24g of protein and 60% of your recommended daily iron – a big difference for such a simple swap from traditional pasta. They also make high-protein rice alternatives, made from chickpea and lentil, called “risoni” for those looking to bulk up their rice dishes with some added protein and fiber.
And they’re not the only ones. Banza’s chickpea-based pastas continue to earn high marks from the gluten-sensitive as well as gluten lovers. The plant-based dry noodles are an easy and tasty swap to make for some extra fiber and protein in a simple at-home meal. Ancient Harvest is another leader in the space, making not only high-protein gluten-free pastas out of lentils, but also noodles made from organic blends of corn, brown rice and quinoa that are renowned for their taste and texture. For even more power in your pasta, they also make veggie noodles which are also gluten-free and include kale, cauliflower, and spinach – perfect for picky eaters of any age looking to get some more vitamins and nutrients in their diets. Also packing veggies into their pasta is Veggiecraft Farms. The brand makes simple, high-fiber, high-protein pastas out of cauliflower, sweet potato, and zucchini – for when you want your veggies, but zoodles just won’t cut it.
Not your grandma’s rice
Not all innovators in the alternative pasta and rice space are completely taking out the traditional ingredients, however — some are simply supplementing them. RightRice makes a rice-based, rice-shaped grain bolstered with chickpeas, peas, and lentils for added protein, fiber, iron, 40 percent fewer net carbs and a lower glycemic index than regular rice. For a quick meal on busy nights, they also sell ready-to-cook rice medleys in varieties like cajun spice and harvest pilaf.
And as proof that it’s not just the meat-heavy ketoers taking a turn toward alternative pasta, note that Trifecta Nutrition’s vegan meal plans include lots of pasta dishes, all of which are gluten free. The meal delivery service recognizes that few consumers are single-issue eaters nowadays.
As health-conscious eaters try to get less of certain things and more of others — trading carbs for protein and gluten for veggies — there’s money in it for companies that can keep up. Brands that offer nutritious noodle and rice alternatives – especially those that manage to taste good – might just get a share of the growing market.
By: Brian Kateman