Whole wheat flour production surges over three years

by Josh Sosland
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KANSAS CITY — In what marks the first time data on the most dynamic segment of grain-based foods have been aggregated, whole wheat flour production in 2005-06 (year ended May 31) has been estimated by Milling & Baking News at 12,386,000 cwts, up 26% from 9,844,000 cwts the year before.

This estimate is based on production figures and guidance provided proprietarily to Milling & Baking News by 19 of the largest flour milling companies in the United States, accounting for more than 90% of U.S. flour milling capacity. Total whole wheat flour production figures are estimated based on the data assembled for the four-year period ended May 31, 2006.

The data help answer two of the most frequently posed questions in grain-based foods in recent years: How fast is demand for whole wheat foods growing, and how large is the market overall?

The 26% growth in whole wheat flour production measured for 2005-06 represented an extraordinary pace of increase for as mature an industry as grain-based foods.

That expansion appeared to confirm assessments of whole wheat advocates that whole wheat products were rapidly capturing the buying focus of consumers, as well as being offered in increasing volume by manufacturers of grain-based consumer foods. The 26% upturn estimated for 2005-06 followed similarly strong rates of growth in 2004-05 (15%) and 2003-04 (20%).

Flour millers offering preliminary indications of sales in the current year suggested the pace of growth in whole wheat flour output in 2006-07 was showing no signs of abating.

Assuming another 25% increase in 2006-07, whole wheat flour production would rise to nearly 16 million cwts. Even with the successive years of sharp gains, whole wheat output accounted for only about 4% of domestic disappearance of wheat flour, excluding durum semolina, in the United States.

Ten companies with double-digit growth

Whole wheat flour output growth rates varied widely among individual milling companies. Yet, 10 companies achieved double-digit increases in 2005-06 from the year before. Growth has been steady and broad across the milling industry during the last three crop years.

For the three years ended May 31, 2006, which include the period when whole wheat flour came to the fore partly as the result of recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans issued at the start of 2005, output gained 74%. The increase was from 7,133,000 cwts in 2002-03 to 12,386,000 in 2005-06.

The revised Dietary Guidelines recommended consumers obtain at least half of their daily consumption of grains from whole grain products. Considering annual domestic disappearance of wheat flour, excluding durum semolina, has recently been about 367 million cwts, whole wheat flour output has a long way to go before even approaching that target.

Additionally, growth is being driven in part by the extraordinary attention devoted to questions about the healthfulness of carbohydrates in the wake of the Atkins dieting craze. The latter raised public awareness of whole grains, described by many nutritionists as the healthiest carbohydrates and embraced by many faddists attacking the nutritional value of so-called refined foods.

While it has been widely understood in the grain-based foods industry that whole wheat accounts for a small percentage of total flour sales, most observers were surprised the share accounted for only 3.4% of non-durum wheat flour production.

Still, the 3.4% share achieved for whole wheat flour sales in 2005-06 represented a marked increase from 2.7% in 2004-05, 2.4% in 2003-04 and 2% in 2002-03.

Share well beneath 5%

On an individual company basis, the share of whole wheat flour production as a percentage of all flour output also remains small. While considerable variation was indicated from one company to the next in the share of total production accounted for by whole wheat flour, not a single major U.S. milling company devoted as much as 10% of milling capacity to whole wheat flour in 2005-06, and most companies were well beneath 5%.

Total U.S. wheat flour production data are gathered quarterly from milling companies by the Bureau of the Census of the U.S. Commerce Department. With the support of the North American Millers Association, the Census publishes this data each quarter. While durum semolina production is broken out from the overall Census flour data, other sub-markets of the flour market, such as whole wheat flour or flour milled from hard wheat or soft wheat, are not reported separately to the Census.

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