Hope for improved flour consumption data

by Morton Sosland
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Leaders of no industry, it may be surmised, spend more time trying to understand data on consumption than do the executives guiding grain-based foods. The same also may be said for this publication where efforts are made to analyze the data. Acknowledging that recent developments make this effort particularly difficult in examining where the industry has been and where it is heading also explains why considerable pleasure is voiced in joining in celebrating the centennial of this information. Yet, like the intricacies of the data, the celebration is convoluted for not marking 100 years of work but for having 100 years of data.

That apparent conundrum is explained by pointing out that it was not until the United States entered World War II that the Economic Research Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture began efforts to measure the food supply. For some unknown reason, 1909 was selected as the first year for which data are collected. Thus, the researchers in early 1942 looked back 33 years to make estimates starting in 1909. So, the current calculations represent 100 years of information that have been compiled now for 67 years.

Although hardly noticed amidst 100 years of data about food availability, two developments that were mainly driven by the facts from the newly-published information are important to grain-based foods. One is mandatory enrichment for wheat flour. In this case, war-driven concerns about maintaining the health of the American people in a time of global conflict led to the launching of this important program. Similarly, it was concern about the nutritional adequacy of food for children that led to enactment in 1946 of the National School Lunch Act. Both are credited with positive outcomes for grain-based foods.

In marking the data’s centennial year, the E.R.S. has focused on five influences that have affected the types and amounts of food. The first is rising incomes, and here it is flour and cereal products that are singled out as prime examples. What the E.R.S. says is worth noting: “Between 1972 and 2008, per capita availability of flour and cereal products increased from a record low 133 pounds per person to 196.5 pounds. The expansion reflects ample cereal stocks, strong consumer demand for a variety of bread, growing popularity of grain-based snack foods and other bakery items, and increased eating out that includes products served with buns and tortillas.”

Thanks to constant enhancement of the food data, grain-based foods may delve into the products accounting for this growth. White and whole wheat flour did participate in the 1972-2008 gain, rising from 102.7 pounds to 125.2 currently. But it’s rice, climbing from 5.6 pounds per capita to 21 now, and corn meal and other corn foods, soaring from 9.7 pounds to 33 pounds currently, that have been outstanding. But even these numbers need to be examined within the context of a relatively recent addition to the data meant to estimate what is available after losses between supply and eating. In the case of grains, this loss is placed at 30 per cent, which means that the 196.5 pounds of flour and cereal foods available is 137.4 pounds eaten. While loss estimates vary sharply by commodities, the all-food loss is 32 per cent, ranging from a low of 18 per cent for cheddar cheese to a high of 39 per cent for apples.

In this centennial year, the E.R.S. is paying particular attention to sharpening its loss estimates. It warns that these figures may only be used as a proxy for actual consumption, but that the calculations are themselves influences on developments in food technology, in health programs, in agricultural programs and even social attitudes. Changes are currently under way to improve accuracy. Hardly anything could be more important to grain-based foods than to have consumption data free of these uncertainties. Yes, the century-long information series is still colored by questions about what the data really mean.

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