Baguette and pasta falls not a threat

by Morton Sosland
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Except perhaps for kale, a green leafy vegetable of the cabbage family, it’s difficult to come up with any food that wins even modest popular acclaim. That especially applies to how the financial press perceives the world of food. It might be said that recent months have seen financial journalists on the prowl for foods that have suffered sufficient criticism to cause some slowing in sales across a nation or even globally. Hardly any food sector seems more vulnerable in this way than grain-based foods, where shifting consumer tastes over the centuries have brought about an array of product modifications that only recently have been interpreted as signs of diminishing consumer acceptance. This is often the case even though almost everything about foods being scrutinized would credit their makers and marketers with doing a formidable job of maintaining positions in what is acknowledged as a fiercely competitive marketplace.

Two articles appearing in recent months in The Wall Street Journal come to mind. A newspaper not particularly noted for its food critiques, the Journal first ran a story describing how popular tastes are shifting in France to the point that the baguette is now being baked for less time in neighborhood boulangeries in part to recapture popularity. As if such a story was not foreboding enough to a largely U.S. readership about the declining role of bread in the French diet, and by implication in the United States also, the Journal less than two months later saw fit to run an article headlined, “Italians Lose Their Taste for Pasta.”

Saying such about pasta in Italy and writing similarly about baguettes in France have all the elements of an editorial bias against grain-based foods. Except for saying that Americans and Europeans no longer eat sandwiches, Asians no longer like to slurp noodles, North Africans to eat couscous or Middle Easterners to like pita, hardly anything could question the merits of grain-based foods as dietary favorites around the world more than allegations about French and Italian eating habits. If there has ever been an outstanding national dietary icon, it is either baguettes in France or pasta in Italy.

Questioning the status of these foods prompts a serious look at allegations. In the case of baguettes, the Journal says they are “under siege” because of a reduction in the time the typical loaf is baked. Instead of 20 to 25 minutes as in the past, baking has been cut to hardly 17 minutes in order to produce a loaf with a softer crust and moister interior, which bakers believe are preferred by consumers. Termed ultimately inferior by food experts, the changed loaf has prompted warnings about “the eclipse of one of the great objects of French national heritage.” Bakers in France are being urged to try to change consumer attitudes as to desirable loaf characteristics.

Quality is not an issue affecting pasta in Italy. Instead, it is fear of calories, leading families that at one time ate pasta at every lunch and dinner to limit their pasta intake to several meals per week. The result is a measurable decrease in consumption. Cited is widespread belief among young women that pasta is fattening. In response to the erosion in the domestic market, Barilla, the country’s leading pasta maker with a 35 per cent share, “is expanding abroad to counter the long-term erosion of the Italian market,” the Journal says.

Barilla has enjoyed considerable success in entering the U.S. market with its own production facilities. It also for a time sought to establish itself as a leading bread baker in Europe, an effort since abandoned. Demand-building steps include a new initiative with McDonald’s Corp. to bring pasta to that fast-food chain’s stores. This is the sort of undertaking along with product innovation and answering fattening fears that will make today’s concerns about swift-changing markets less a threat and more a chance for rebuilding demand.
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