While baking long has been among the most stable of food businesses when measured by year-to-year demand changes, the picture appears to be changing for the worse to the point baking executives should be paying very close attention.

SymphonyIRI data to be published in the next issue of Milling & Baking News indicate that the volume of bread sold in the last 52 weeks was down 4.5% from the year before, which is certainly the steepest one-year decline in the history of sliced bread. As a basis of comparison, declines during the nightmarish “Atkins years” were between 1% and 2% per year.

In addition to many factors identified as affecting demand such as the slack economy and gluten-free dieting, other prominent recent developments may be gaining traction as well. These include stepped-up warnings (and heightened consumer awareness) about bread’s role in obesity and about sodium in the diet, with bread fingered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the principal dietary source.

The Center for Science and the Public Interest is continuing its critical drumbeat criticism of labels on grain-based foods that confuse consumers about how much whole grain is contained. The degree to which any of these factors may be blamed for the decline in bread sales is very unclear. Additionally, a major baking company recently estimated the SymphonyIRI data only account for about 50% of their fresh bread volume, meaning the scanner statistics present an incomplete picture.

Still, there’s no escaping the fact the sales data are troubling. The leadership of milling and baking in recent days announced plans for major changes for the Grain Foods Foundation. Getting a real handle on exactly what is driving this sudden downturn in demand is crucial if the foundation hopes to succeed in achieving its newly refined objectives.