Flour use numbers have varied meaning

by Morton Sosland
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As delightful as it may be for grain-based foods to celebrate the new record in total wheat flour disappearance in the past year, the data revealing this outcome have so many permutations that even this finding may not be as favorable as it first appears. Indeed, much that is negative about the status of wheat flour consumption may be derived from the annual figures just issued by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If wishful thinking is applied, the outcome may be viewed as disappointing while sharply spelling out the task the industry must face.

No matter how one may feel about the direction of demand for wheat flour-based foods in America, it is difficult, if not impossible, to deny the reality of the finding that total disappearance of flour in 2012 reached a new record of 423 million hundredweights. That reflected an increase of nearly 9 million hundredweights from the prior year and was 4 million greater than the previous mark. It was not until 1997 that flour disappearance first reached 400 million hundredweights, and the gain through the past year represented a significant increase by any calculation.

Enthusiasm about this, though, is definitely tempered by appreciating that a number often termed consumption is quite different when it is correctly called disappearance. According to studies conducted by the Agriculture Department over many years, nearly a third, right around 30 per cent, of flour that disappears is not actually consumed as human food. Much of the waste occurs at the point of consumption, in both at-home and food service, although sizable quantities are diverted into non-food waste and other uses along processing and distribution channels. To whatever degree efforts to reduce waste have made progress in recent years, that waste share clearly remains among the largest of any food sector.

It is when the total disappearance is converted into a per capita number that the main concerns emerge. This is so, even though per capita disappearance rose nearly 2 pounds in 2012 over 2011, rising to 134 pounds. The problem very simply is that the 2011 use was the smallest in more than two decades, since the late 1980s when the average was on an upward course that not only elated grain-based foods but created much optimism. The peak of that upward cycle came in the latest 1990s, at 147 pounds. In little more than a decade since that mark, which was impressively up from the modern low of 110 in the 1960s, the wheat flour using industry has endured a 9 per cent drop in per capita disappearance.

There are different ways of measuring the meaning of that setback for the flour-using industry. One favorite is to note that if per capita use in 2012 had simply been unchanged from what it was at the start of the 21st century, demand currently would be 37 million hundredweights larger than it turned out to be. That missed increment neatly equals, and even exceeds, average monthly flour output. Just as dramatic is the way that flour use, up a meager 2.2 per cent from the start of the 21st century, lags the 11.3 per cent expansion occurring in U.S. population in the same period.

If there is any reliable measure of wheat flour demand, it is the trend in population. Recent growth in the United States has consistently been near 2.2 million a year. Listening to national debating about immigration law reform, this rate of growth takes on many positives considering what is known about the food preferences of the immigrants who are currently and are likely in the future to account for much of American growth. Unless the wheat flour industry successfully positions itself to continue to win the favor of consumers of all origins and sorts, it will have given up on one of the great opportunities in a history replete with opportunities both missed and seized.

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