Grain consumption patterns reveal dietary shifts

by Morton Sosland
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In assessing prospects for grain-based foods, hardly anything is more important than awareness of long-term consumption trends. Indeed, there are few food industries where past performance is such an excellent basis for telling what lies ahead. With the rare exception of events like the way the Atkins diet depressed consumption in the early years of the 21st century, the past has proved an excellent foreteller of the future. Graphically, the curves run along smooth lines, underscoring how a mighty effort is required to change direction or even to accelerate an existing movement. The history of consumption in the 20th century bears this out in striking fashion, with the long running downward trend in per capita consumption in the first seven decades of the century followed by three decades of upturns to close out those 100 years.

But like many predictors that are based on past performance, the story of grain-based foods has episodes that demand exploration to determine the best road to true understanding of what is happening. Nowhere is that more striking than in the finding that in the period since 1970, the year that marked the consumption nadir, per capita use of all cereal grain foods increased at a rate double that of wheat flour. The latter, as measured by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rose 21 per cent, from 104 to 125.8 pounds in the 1970-2007 period. Aggregate per capita consumption, or availability, of flour and other cereal products combined in that same time climbed 44 per cent, from 136.5 to 196.9 pounds.

As revealing as this difference may be between increases in consumption of white and whole wheat flour and the aggregate of all cereal grains, it is even more provocative to examine how the product mix has changed. In 1970, white and wheat flour accounted for 76 per cent of total cereal grain consumption in America. That share has fallen with each decade’s passing, to 75 per cent in 1980, 69 per cent in 1990, 67 per cent in 2000 and 64 per cent currently. While wheat millers and bakers of bread and other flour-based products may derive much satisfaction, even pleasure, from the per capita consumption rise coinciding with sizable population gains, trends in other grains underscore a significant competitive edge that merits close examination.

On a poundage basis, rice, corn meal and corn flour, and durum semolina are the leaders in vying for a share of cereal grains consumption. Rice leads with per capita consumption currently at 20.5 pounds, up a whopping 170 per cent from the 1970 average of 7.6 pounds. Corn flour and meal are a close second, at 19.1 pounds, registering a 173 per cent gain that shows these two very different product categories enjoying remarkably parallel growth. Durum semolina, with a per capita average of 12.3 pounds, has registered an impressive 78 per cent growth. Sizable gains have been registered in lesser products like hominy and grits as well as corn food starch. Oat food per capita consumption has held remarkably steady for the entire period, at 4.7 pounds. Only two cereal grains show per capita decreases, rye flour, down 58 per cent to 0.5 pound, and barley, down 30 per cent to 0.7 pound.

These varied consumption trends reflect demographic and dietary changes that are major contributors to the exciting history of grain-based foods. Rice as well as corn meal gained hugely from the expanding Hispanic population. Rice also benefits from the popularity of Asian foods. Durum semolina’s growth measures the increasing importance of pasta and similar products.

The question must now be the extent to which these trends will continue, having persisted over nearly 40 years with rather surprising results. For grain-based foods, the lesson is the diminishing dominance of wheat flour and the way in which products once of rather limited importance have emerged as significant to the industry’s present-day vitality.

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