With the extraordinary ingredient price swings of the past three years, it is exceptionally difficult to track a single ingredient’s current price relative to levels of a few years back, much less in relation to other ingredients.

Within grain-based foods alone, ingredient cost changes this year have varied widely. For instance the indexes for bagel and white bread ingredient prices, as tracked by Milling & Baking News, were down year to date 9% and 6%, respectively, while short bread cookies and devil’s food cake were up 14% and 20%.

Cocoa, dairy and sugar prices have stood out in 2009 for their strength, lifting the ingredient costs for desserts, such as vanilla ice cream, up 34%; and a chocolate bar, up 40%. Prices for non-fat dry milk were up 63% as of early December; cocoa prices, up 114%; and beet sugar prices, up 29%.

Divergence between end product ingredient prices changes is even greater over the three-year period ranging from mayonnaise ingredient costs down 11%, to a milk chocolate bar, up 74%. Within grain-based foods, the largest gain was in devil’s food cake, up 54%; while white bread was up 15%; and pasta fell 5%.

Ingredient prices this year have not been as volatile as in early 2008, but market conditions remain treacherous.