Realistic look at flour consumption trends

by Morton Sosland
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It is not overreaching to say that the future of grain-based foods depends on how the industry responds to recent data showing that total and per capita disappearance of wheat flour decreased in 2011. True enough, the setbacks were not unexpected in light of bread’s performance in the retail marketplace. Millers for the most part felt that flour volume moving into bread baking channels had experienced a setback, and the dimensions of what was happening were hinted in numerous retail analyses. But just because the reductions did not surprise does not mean that these losses ought to be overlooked. Further, it’s only a partial prop that grain-based foods has been doing relatively well in comparison with other food sectors.

So far as actual wheat flour disappearance is concerned, two different ways are at hand for analyzing. The impression grain-based foods is experiencing lesser reductions than many other food sectors is reinforced by the relatively small flour decrease. Domestic flour disappearance is calculated by deducting exports of flour and flour-containing products from a supply total made up of production plus imports. That aggregate reached a record in 2010 of 417,667,000 hundredweights. That 2011 was down just 1 per cent from the peak does not seem significant or worrying to optimists.

Alas, though, considering how U.S. population — the market for flour-based foods —has continued to grow at nearly 1 per cent annually, losing a trifle more than 4 million hundredweights of flour demand might not be as insignificant as it first appears. This is best understood by looking at what has happened to disappearance since the start of the 21st century. Indeed, it’s shocking to realize that flour disappearance in 2011 was practically identical to 2000 even though U.S. population gained a net 30 million consumers. Yes, annual disappearance has gone nowhere in a period when the number of people eating and buying food significantly expanded.

Nothing emphasizes that situation better than per capita consumption trends. These are compiled by dividing the disappearance total by the mid-year resident population, including armed forces overseas. What that reveals is a steady, although not annual, reduction in per capita use. From the post-World War II peak of 147 pounds reached in 1997, per capita has dropped 10 per cent to the newly-released 2011 estimate of 133. The latter is the smallest per capita flour use in almost a quarter of a century. It marks the seventh yearly reduction from the level of 146 pounds ruling in 2000.

Yes, the 2-pound decrease from 2010 to 2011 is not the sharpest ever posted, which might be seen as mitigating its message. But a much more sobering way of looking at these numbers involves the reminder of how grain-based foods benefited from the climb in per capita disappearance that occurred between 1972, when the modern low of 110 pounds was reached, to that 1997 peak of 147. Coming at a time of population gains, that rise meant a near doubling in flour disappearance to the current total above 400 million hundredweights. The problem very simply is that the loss in per capita in the past 14 years wipes out more than a third of that prior upward trend. Saying it another way, if per capita in 2011 had been the same as it was in the year 2000, total disappearance of wheat flour related to volume of bread and other products would have been 40 million hundredweights, or 10 per cent, larger than it was.

For an industry like grain-based foods that has plenty of vim and vigor, giving up on the opportunity to capture such a market seems beyond belief. Considerable effort has gone into programs to counter unfavorable dietary trends and to correct attitudes that have negatively affected these outcomes. Much more needs doing especially when the true potential and the realistic basis for concerns about the future of flour consumption are fully understood.
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