NPD analyst sees steep cost in move away from carbohydrates

by Editorial Staff
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COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — While overall consumption of grain-based foods held steady in the 1990s, the segment has lost ground this century, equaling billions and billions of lost servings, said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst with The NPD Group, Inc., New York.

Mr. Seifer spoke Oct. 7 at the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association at the Broadmoor.

Distinguishing NPD’s work from organizations that provide scanner data, Mr. Seifer said, as an example, scanners describe how much oatmeal sells from stores while NPD finds out how much oatmeal is used for cookies rather than as hot cereal.

Looking at bread consumption over time, Mr. Seifer said grain consumption was steady in the 1990s, though bread saw a decline because of diminished use for toast at breakfast.

Back to grains overall, he said the category’s “share of stomach” ended the 1990s at about 21%.

He credited Robert Atkins, “with his clear and simple message,” for the volatility in consumption patterns in the 2000s. He also credited Dr. Atkins with bringing whole grains to the forefront and creating a distinction between “good carbs and bad carbs” (not only with reference to grains).

“Making things simpler for consumers is what they want,” Mr. Seifer said. “Consumers have their daily lives, they have their kids, they have their worries. So when we have these complex terms and make them simple, they latch on.

“Atkins said there are good things and bad things. It is more complicated than that.”

Mr. Seifer said cereal experienced a brief drop with Atkins, and bread continued its decline throughout the decade.

“Overall, grain-based foods lost a couple percentage points of stomach share,” Mr. Seifer said. “It may not seem like so much, but when you consider there are 3 to 4 times a day people eat, and there are 300 million Americans, there are a billion meals eaten every day. A couple percentage points is billions and billions of servings over time. It’s a big deal.”

Much of Mr. Seifer’s presentation was spent looking at the distinction between trends and fads, and evaluating into which box grain-based foods developments of recent years belong.

“What we find across the years, is that anything that asks you to be restrictive, cut out sodium, cholesterol, or fat, they don’t last very long because they ask you to stop doing something,” he said. “Carbs are in that as well. Cutting out sugar, you have alternatives. You could put yellow or pink packet in your coffee, but you’re still having coffee.”

NPD data indicate 64% of adults are trying to eat whole grains, Mr. Seifer said.

“It’s not restrictive, it’s the opposite,” he said.

Noting that demand for whole grains has been growing steadily for

five years, Mr. Seifer said it appears to be a mainstay of the diet rather than a fad. By contrast, low-carbohydrate dieting made a big splash and then “fell off the map,” he said.

“Less than 1% of products are marked as low carb,” he said. “That’s done.”

Less certain is whether gluten-free dieting could be characterized as a fad or a trend, Mr. Seifer said.

“It hit the scene more recently,” he said. “About a quarter of adults are saying they want to cut out or reduce gluten. It hit the scene recently and is getting a lot of splash, a lot of buzz. An article this week in the New York Post called it the city’s new psychosis — gluten.”

Mr. Seifer said that while sentiments in New York do not always represent the entire United States, he said the estimate of 25% of the population showing wariness of gluten is a national survey, not New York alone.

The interest has resulted in an “explosion” of gluten-free items on restaurant menus and in grocery stores, he added, noting only about 1% of the population actually suffers from Celiac disease.

“It’s almost like gluten has become enemy No. 1, even though most people don’t have to worry about it in their lives,” he said.

Turning to concerns about the economy, Mr. Seifer said consumer packaged foods increasingly are taking differing tacks for “haves and have nots.”

He noted that Procter & Gamble is taking a two-tiered approach to its product lines.

He suggested grain-based foods companies need to communicate better with lower income households about the “healthful affordability” of their products.

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