Flour potential worth fighting for

by Morton Sosland
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Assessing all the reasons or consequences for grain-based foods of the 2-pound decrease in per capita disappearance of wheat flour between 2014 and 2015 is not an easy task. Information is missing on whether the decrease mainly reflects consumption losses in specific areas or among certain sectors of the population and whether it represents the impact of a specially powerful attack on eating wheat foods or whether conditions in the food economy could be blamed. Or is it significant enough to serve as a powerful alarm that consumption trends threaten severe damage unless steps are taken to reverse the forces at work here?

Suffice it to say that the decrease in per capita disappearance of flour, from 135 pounds in 2014 to 133 in 2015, should stand by itself as a powerful alarm. The data were just issued by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in its annual study of wheat flour supply and disappearance. Added comfort about the accuracy of the compilations came from knowing that the 2015 total of wheat flour production is a number gathered by the U.S.D.A.’s National Agricultural Statistics Service in its first year of publishing data on flour output.

What the 2015 per capita decrease indicates is that the downtrend that began at the very end of the 20th century is persisting, but thankfully not accelerating, through the 21st century. It was in 1997 that per capita disappearance reached a recent peak of 147 pounds in culminating the consumption rise from the modern low of 110 pounds early in the 1970s. The 1971-97 period witnessed one of the most remarkable transformations of a major food industry ever recorded propelled by the 37-pound increase in average flour consumption. Many factors are cited to explain that expansion, such as fast-food growth based on sandwiches and pizzas, variety bread introductions and dietary recommendations focused on grain-based foods.

Accounting for the recent loss of more than a third of that marvelous increase, with per capita dropping from 1997 to 2015 by 14 pounds, is very sobering. A little may be explained by reductions in home baking. Much more probably may be traced to the rising crescendo of attacks on bread whose ferocity and impact on actual eating may not be dismissed as fads or fashion. Nothing is more disturbing about the latter developments than indications that criticism of wheat’s gluten content — long considered a blessing of Mother Nature — mainly is embraced by young people in generations that soon will dominate.

The partial offset to falling per capita in recent years is population growth. But 2015 is one of those years where the 2-pound decrease in per capita disappearance countered the 1 per cent population gain to result in total flour disappearance nearly the same as in the previous year. That 2014 set a record in the flour use total at 429,826,000 hundredweights is a mark worth hailing. When per capita was at its recent peak in 1997, flour use was 400,619,000 hundredweights. That is the first year the total exceeded 400 million. The power of population expansion is striking in the way that annual disappearance since 1997 gained 30 million hundredweights to 2015 in face of the 14-pound per capita drop.

Coinciding with the time that the flour disappearance calculations were first issued was an unrelated analysis that had to do with the impact of the past year’s fall in crude oil prices on the economies of some of the Middle Eastern producers. Their loss, measured in terms of revenues that would have been achieved, came to more than $300 billion. Using the same philosophy to assess the impact of the reduction in per capita consumption results in the finding that flour use this past year would have been near 475 million hundredweights, or 45 million more than it actually was, if per capita had held steady. That possibility seems well worth fighting for.
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