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Supermarket sales of courgettes and root vegetables are revving up this season. 2015 could well be the year when more consumers than ever will be reaching their five (or six, or seven) a day fruit-and-vegetable consumption target, and all thanks to a new trend that sees common vegetables transformed into a substitute for gluten-addled staples.
How the world of pasta has changed. Once, it was all about the content of high quality durum wheat which separated the good from the bad. Now the mere mention of wheat makes consumers feel twitchy. Our packaged food data show that value sales of dried pasta fell by 13% in Western Europe and by 6% in North America over the 2009-2014 review period (based on fixed US$ 2014 exchange rates and constant prices). In Germany, sales dwindled by 13%, in Sweden by 11% and in Italy, pasta’s ancestral home, values plummeted by a disconcerting 25%.
For today’s health and weight conscious consumer, pasta is beset by two increasingly unpalatable problems. First of all, it is made from gluten-containing wheat, and it is precisely gluten and wheat which a growing number of consumers are trying to avoid. The second issue is that pasta is regarded by many as nothing more than a low-in-nutrients-but-high-in-carbs vehicle for tasty sauces. Pasta has thus come to be branded as an “empty calorie” food, much like white bread, sales of which aren’t doing too well either these days.
Gluten-free pasta, incidentally, performed much better than the standard variety, racking up global value growth of 60% over the review period. The high calorie/carbohydrate issue, however, remains.
And this is where spiralized vegetables – vegetables that are cut into fine strips or ribbons by a vegetable processing device designed for this purpose – have stepped into the breach; they are exceedingly low in carbohydrates (and therefore, calories), and full of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Courgettes, squashes, pumpkins and root vegetables like carrots, celery, sweet potatoes, beetroot, etc are among the best suited for turning into faux pasta. Popular food writers and bloggers not only assure their readers that they make a perfect substitute for pasta, but also that they are enjoyed by children who habitually reject vegetables.
Cutting vegetables up into tiny little strips is nothing new. “Julienning”, as this technique is called in haute-cuisine jargon, was first mentioned in print almost 300 years ago, predictably in a French cookery book. In the 1940s, Japanese Company Benriner Co Ltd came up with a flat wooden vegetable slicer aimed at the foodservice sector, and today, its sturdy but lightweight Benriner Cook Help Vegetable Slicer, a manually-operated table-top device equipped with a turning handle and three types of blades, is regarded as the gold standard of vegetable spiralizers.
As with all trends, the vegetable spiralizing mania was brewing for some time before it reached critical mass and hit the global mainstream in early 2015, when cookery sections of major publications suddenly started raving about what a nifty little idea it was. In January 2015, (American edition) Vogue featured an article entitled “Why you need a spiralizer” in its Arts and Lifestyle section, while in the UK, “Spiralizing: How to get the best results” appeared on the BBC’s Good Food blog around the same time.
According to interviews conducted by The Guardian in April 2015 with some major grocery retailers in the UK, the spiralizing trend has boosted vegetable sales. Compared to last year, Waitrose has been selling 13% more courgettes this year and Marks & Spencers 20% more. This increase is attributed to shoppers’ new-found love of churning out “courgetti” in their kitchens. Marks & Spencers also noted a 64% rise in sweet potato sales on last year. Spiralizer-fashioned sweet potato “noodles” are popular in stir fries as well as for making curly fries.
Predictably, packaged ready-cut vegetable strips are starting to hit supermarket shelves. Convenience rules, and even though spiralizing one’s own vegetables on the kitchen worktop can take less time than boiling up a bag of dried rigatoni, it is still a physical effort that leaves a mess and creates washing up.
Homing in on the trend, Tesco, the UK’s leading grocery retailer, launched a range of private label vegetable products in late May 2015, including carrot spaghetti, courgette ribbons and cauliflower couscous. These are packaged in clear plastic containers bearing explicit messages as to their purpose, ie “a perfect alternative to traditional couscous/rice/pasta”.
These offerings will no doubt attract consumers who may already have been curious about spiralized vegetables, but who have, so far, remained reluctant to invest in yet another newfangled kitchen gadget. Indeed, convenience offerings might persuade a greater number of consumers to have a go at DIY spiralizing, especially now that the northern hemisphere courguette season is about to start in earnest and buying fresh, unprocessed veg will work out significantly cheaper in the long run.
It is not all that often that a food or diet trend appears on the scene which public health bodies can wholeheartedly embrace, but spiralized vegetables is surely one that health professionals, vegetable growers and retailers can all get behind. It is now a matter of combining forces to ensure that it does not fizzle out prematurely and end up as yet another bullet point on the long list of short-lived “fads”.