Avery Hairston and Brian Rudolph talk with IFT about the development of their low-carb and gluten free Banza Chickpea pasta.

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Walking down the pasta aisle in any supermarket tends to evoke comforting memories of mom’s special clam linguini or grandma’s bucatini all’amatriciana in today’s consumers. It also screams that fatal key phrase to anyone trying to lose weight: empty carbs.

Avery Hairston and Brian Rudolph, two young entrepreneurs and food innovators, are trying to change that very notion. Their Michigan-based company Banza makes a low-carb pasta that’s entirely gluten free and rich in protein. The secret to packing so much nutrition in their pasta happens to be its main ingredient: chickpeas.

One serving of Banza penne, rotini or other familiar pasta shape has 14 grams of protein, twice the amount found in traditional pasta. With just 24 grams of net carbs and four times as much fiber as regular pasta, Banza offers up a much healthier alternative for those looking to slim down.

Though non-traditional pastas made from other pulse ingredients like black beans and lentils have a pretty well established niche market among celiacs and other people with health issues, Hairston and Rudolph think their product will go mainstream thanks to its similar taste and feel to regular pasta. They believe placing this healthier, more sustainable product next to the De Ceccos and Barillas of the world could be enough to start a supermarket revolution.

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Photo: 14 grams of protein per serving

IFT spoke to Avery and Brian recently about how Banza came to be and how they plan take the pasta market by storm.

IFT: To start off could you tell me about the origins of your chickpea pasta? Where did you come up with the idea?

Avery: Brian was the one who came up with it. He had been experimenting with non-wheat pastas, but noticed that there weren’t enough tasty options that also happened to be nutritious. There are all these pastas out there; some of them have higher protein and maybe fewer carbs, but none of them provided both a healthy and great tasting pasta experience. So that was the impetus for Banza: let’s make something that’s incredibly nutritious and just as delicious as regular pasta.

Brian: We’re a relatively small team but at one point [Banza pasta] was made by hand in my kitchen. It started out as a hobby because I really like pasta and I couldn’t find a particularly healthy one. So this was a way that I could eat pasta and know that it had nutritional value.

IFT: What aspects of chickpeas really appealed to you and made you finally decide that it would be the key ingredient in your product?

Avery: We’re huge fans of chickpeas. They have this nice umami flavor, and from a nutritional standpoint they’re amazing. Of all the legumes out there, chickpeas actually have a very similar look and feel to wheat, especially when compared to, say, black bean or red lentil or edamame, which can be a little bit off-putting and act more like a zucchini noodle than a traditional pasta. So what we’re looking to do is ask how can we make the most frictionless transition for the consumer? How can we make it as easy for them as possible to eat healthy? The answer is chickpeas– they can get us as close as possible to conventional pasta, while still offering a nutritional value.

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Photo: Banza chickpea pasta packaging.

IFT: Do you believe Banza can really change the current mindset of pasta being this carb-heavy not particularly healthy food? In other words can Banza reclaim pasta’s status as a sort of “everyday food”?

Avery: That’s our goal. We really want to transform the way people view pasta, kind of the way Chobani and Greek yogurt shaped the way we view the yogurt aisle— by introducing a healthier, high protein option. There are lot of non-wheat pastas, but they mainly target one or two niche consumers. We’re really positioning ourselves as something not just for gluten-free people, not just for celiacs or diabetics, but rather something that everyone at the dinner table can enjoy.  Banza has the macro nutrients that make it appealing for a mainstream consumer. A traditional pasta-lover might only eat pasta every now and then because it’s kind of an empty carb, but Banza is something people can eat every day, guilt-free.

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Photo: Banza chickpea ‘shell’ pasta with a tomato vodka sauce (Banza alla Vodka – view recipe)

There are three big reasons why you wouldn’t eat healthy: time, cost and general knowledge of how to prepare a healthy meal for yourself. But you can make pasta healthy. Pasta off the bat is easy, simple, cost-effective and doesn’t require that much knowledge or time to actually prepare. So if we can make pasta healthy, all of the sudden you have something that’s healthy, simple, easy and relatively cheap. So that’s the higher level goal. We’re starting off with Banza, a pasta product, but in the long term—just to give you a bit of an inside look into what we’re doing as a company—we look at ourselves as a food innovation company, where our first product is Banza, and we’re hoping to release another product over the next year or two that is equally revolutionary.

View more Banza chickpea pasta recipes on the Banza blog!

IFT: It seems Americans are generally willing to try new innovative products especially those promising to slim their waistlines, but do you see Banza taking off in other markets where traditional pasta is so ingrained, say Italy?

Avery: Yes! We’ve already have a ton of interest from Italy, along with Canada, South Africa, the UK, and Australia. We launched [Banza] on a show called Restaurant Startup (CNBC), which is kind of like Shark Tank for food. We won investment from restaurateur Joe Bastianch, who is business partners with Mario Batali. He’s a tried and true Italian guy and he really believed in the product. For Joe, taste is everything., so that really gave us the motivation to go after not just the gluten-free market, but the traditional pasta eaters as well. When the show re-airs in different countries we see a lot of traffic on our website and a lot of customer inquiries from different countries asking, “when are you going to export?” So it’s something that’s going to happen in the near future. We’re already looking to export to Canada very soon, and I think soon we’ll be headed overseas to the UK and Italy and maybe Australia.

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Charlie Higgins, IFT Journalist

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