Refined data has same message

by Morton Sosland
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In looking at the many implications of data issued a few weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service on wheat flour disappearance, it is essential not to neglect related estimates made along somewhat different lines. Here attention is paid to the actual amount of food consumed after deducting losses from producing flour mills through commercial processing and distribution as well as at home. It is another part of the E.R.S. that estimates consumption that is different from production. For a long time, the E.R.S. estimated that 30 per cent was lost. In the latest study the annual loss has been slightly revised to 29.6 per cent.

With the latest report on wheat flour supply and disappearance placing per capita availability at 133 pounds, the new loss estimate says 93.6 pounds are consumed. Roughly 10 per cent of wheat flour is used at home, leaving 90 per cent baked or processed outside the home. At that actual consumption of 93.6, flour use in 2015 was nearly the smallest since 1986 when the estimate was 88.4 pounds. The recent peak in consumption was 103.3 pounds in 1997, the same year per capita supply hit its recent high. And there is the single exception of 2011 at 93.3. This obviously negative trend duplicates the disturbing message from earlier estimates revealing per capita flour supply’s downtrend.

Yet, the disappearance figures computed from actual consumption analysis would also show how relatively small these changes are from year to year when looked at from a per-person and per-day point of view. Converting the pounds of actual consumption into ounces per person per day quite literally makes the worrying annual numbers into slight changes. The E.R.S. places actual consumption of wheat flour at 4.2 ounces per capita per day, compared with the recent high of 4.5 ounces in 2000. That 4.5 ounces is the present-era peak in daily consumption per person, and it rose from 3.6 ounces in the late 1970s.

The message derived from estimates showing daily consumption of calories provided by wheat flour does tend to present a sharper fall than revealed by other measures. Thus, from the peak of 440.8 calories available per day from wheat flour foods to the current total slightly below 400 is a fall that sounds a warning. It is important to recognize that the E.R.S. makes use of food patterns in American eating to estimate how many calories are consumed daily.

Using the same food pattern equivalents to estimate the number of calories consumed per day is presented for each year. Since this number reflects both changes in what Americans are eating as well as the availability of wheat flour, the year-to-year changes are quite different from the picture based on wheat flour supply less exports divided by the population total. The latest estimate of daily ounces per day of wheat flour eaten is 4.912 ounces, the most since 4.914 in 2008 and compared with 5.262 in 2000. The latter is the highest level of the past 50 years. Yet, the decline the most recent calculations point to has little significance. Of course, when related to a loaf of bread that decrease is measureable to wholesale bakers and emphasizes the urgency of finding ways to reverse these trends.

Indeed, an excellent case may be made to enlist all processors of food from grains in efforts to reverse negative attitudes about the importance of grains as foods. Even though variations may be cited from the pattern of wheat flour, grains as a whole have much the same trends that merit a powerful response underscoring the true role of grain foods in the diet. According to the E.R.S., all grain foods reflected real per capita consumption of 101.3 pounds in 1980, which rose to 137.6 in 2000 and fell to 122.6 currently. The case is stark, and the need for action could not be more strongly defined.
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