Rice mixes Dry dinners-pasta Canned pasta Canned soup Spaghetti/ marinara sauce Dry pasta Canned vegetables SPICE, RICE ARE NICE FOR CENTER OF THE PLATE

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In Lisa Henderson's view, today's convenience foods have a set of consumer hurdles to clear: They have to be easy to make, fast to eat, low in fat but interesting too.

"That's the benchmark, the starting point," said Ms. Henderson, business unit director of new products for Specialty Foods. "Only after meeting those goals can you start to differentiate a product."

Specialty Foods, which has assembled a portfolio of brands including Durkee, French's, Spice Islands and Dromedary, has centered its new-product work around two burgeoning trends that are helping marketers clear those hurdles: Moving grain-based foods to the center of the plate, and using spices and seasonings as fat and sodium substitutes.

The booming consumer interest in rice, pasta and beans has fueled sales increases for brands from General Mills' Hamburger Helper to 36-year-old Rice-A-Roni, and spurred Specialty Foods to launch Spice Islands Quick Meal this summer. Only boiling water is needed to turn each Quick Meal into a single-serving pasta, rice or bean-based meal in a cup.

"Consumers continue to move away from meat-based items to plant-based products," she said. "You don't have to be a vegetarian to appreciate that."

Chuck Marcy understands. As president of Quaker Oats Co.'s Golden Grain Co., he's overseeing the move to promote the venerable rice-and-vermicelli mix as a main dish. It includes recipes in magazine ads and a toll-free number that gives callers customized recipe ideas using Rice-A-Roni and whatever ingredients they have on hand. Golden Grain also is testing in California a line of frozen Rice-A-Roni Simple Meals: microwaveable family-size dinners featuring flavored rice plus chicken and vegetables.

Rice-A-Roni and other rice mixes are benefiting from the pound-a-year increases in per-capita rice consumption, now at more than 25 pounds, according to Rice Council estimates.

"Trends suggest people will find more ways to get grains into their diet," Mr. Marcy said. "The opportunity is to offer new ideas, flavors and alternatives."

That's where spice comes in. Mr. Marcy said with flavor variety driving the rice mix category, he sees great potential in the Near East line of rices, pilafs and couscous Golden Grain acquired last year. "It might not be as mainstream or family-oriented as Rice-A-Roni, but there's a definite target: People who are interested in cooking, and the Mediterranean diet with its focus on spices," he said.

Specialty Foods is using its Spice Islands flavor expertise to create products like Durkee Beef Easy, no-fat spice mixes to coat meat before roasting. Beef Easy this summer joined Durkee's Easy Meals spice mixes for chicken and fish in giving General Foods USA's Shake 'n Bake stronger competition.

"Spice gives people flavor without the things they feel are unhealthy," Ms. Henderson said.

These experts said the trend toward spicier foods, as well as the boom in rice products, will only grow as the American palate becomes more sophisticated.

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