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Pasta takes a healthier turn with whole grain

Gaining popularity with consumers, enriched pastas are taking over the grocery aisles. ‘Today’ food editor Phil Lempert shares the skinny.

Pasta has become a nutrition-worthy center-plate item — adding a powerful appeal to its popular repertoire of traits as a tasty, filling, fun-to-eat, economical choice. It's fun to eat, easy to cook and offers us a myriad of opportunities to add veggies, chicken, shrimp, all kinds of spices and herbs and dozens of different types of sauces. But the biggest news is all about nutrition as we Americans begin to lap up “enriched” pastas — with whole grains, vitamins, minerals and proteins — these are heating up the pasta aisle juiced by eye-level displays in center-store aisles and attractive packaging.

This is positive news for an otherwise down category of food that’s still trying to rebound from the since-faded low-carbohydrate craze that caused the pasta business to be smaller today than it was four years ago. Total pasta sales (macaroni/spaghetti/noodles and dumplings/oriental noodles) reached $1.23 billion in the 52 weeks ended June 17, 2006, according to ACNielsen Strategic Planner and ACNielsen LabelTrends data which measures pre-packaged, UPC-coded products only.

Within this broad product grouping, the ingredient shift to whole grains resonates with consumers and mirrors activity in breads. Brand marketing efforts seem to be helping whole-grain pastas gain traction with new users; whole-grain pasta sales rose 26 percent just last year. Interestingly, the average price per pound of whole-grain varieties is $1.94, a significant 78 percent premium over the $1.09 average of pastas overall.

Topline for pasta lovers? Whole grain pastas are more filling than traditional varieties, so my suggestion is to actually use about half the amount that you normally prepare. The science on the benefits of consuming whole grains is one of the few areas of nutrition that all seem to agree on: Eat at least three servings a day and not only will you most likely reduce your cholesterol level, but you'll also diminish the chances of heart disease, cancers and other maladies. If you haven’t made the switch to whole grain pastas yet, what are you waiting for? They are delicious.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .