Since 1877, the Italian pasta brand, Barilla, has been supplying the global appetite for Italian food, but the challenges facing food brands are changing, as is the conversation around sustainability.

Though Barilla’s pasta – alongside, bread, biscuit, crackers, cakes, and sauces – is famous across both Europe and the United States, at the product level it has had to adapt to bring its processes into line with consumer expectations. Since 2010, for instance, the firm has cut all palm oil out of its products, as well as reducing sugar, salt and saturated fats.

The business is posting year-on-year growth of three percent, but with Italy and the United States its largest markets, it is beholden to new expectations.

Lately, the conversation affecting Barilla’s strategy has shifted to sustainability. “We recently launched pasta made from red lentils,” Paolo Barilla, co-deputy chairman of the family-owned brand, told the Financial Times. “The pasta looks the same as it has done for the past 144 years, but what is going on it is completely different,” he says.

It was also a reaction to the rise of gluten-free diets that have “very much had an impact on sales, in the US and in Italy,” Barilla added.

The company is now changing how it thinks about the environmental impact of its production, not least at the level of its farms.  It has, for instance, incentivised suppliers by paying a premium to farmers who reserve land to grow wild flowers to sustain bees, or if they rotate their crops.

Barilla credits the firm’s family structure with its ability to adapt, a flexibility that has had to be applied to reputation management as well as product devolepment.

In 2013, the company attracted rightful scorn when Paolo’s eldest sibling Guido – nominally chairman, though three brothers run the company equally – made a significant gaffe when talking about the virtues of the “sacral”, or in some translations “classic family”, on Italian radio.

“I would never do a commercial with a homosexual family, not for lack of respect, but because we don’t agree with them,” Guido said. His comments blew up on social media as #BoycottBarilla, drawing international criticisms and the probability of diminished sales, as per a story on the incident in Bloomberg Businessweek. He apologised immediately, but the company had to put serious resource into making amends: Bloomberg reported that it has spent around $5 million a year to turn around its reputation.

Less than a month after the comments, the company created an inclusion board, donated to LGBT causes, and has gone on to feature same-sex imagery on its packaging. It now ranks highly as an internationally-recognised LGBT-friendly employer. Though the comments resulted in no impact in sales, the company knew what it needed to do.

“We learnt your provincialism and history can cause you to inflict unintended prejudice towards others,” Paulo said of the incident. “We’ve asked ourselves: how can we take into account the changing lifestyle of people?”

Family was both the cause and antidote to the incident. “It [family] allows us to be more agile,” Barilla said. “We had the ability to act immediately and to take on board more deeply what was going on.”

Sourced from the Financial Times, Bloomberg