It would be difficult to blame anyone who chose not to carefully scrutinize the most recent U.S. flour production data issued in late August by Veris Consulting, Inc. While aggregate production in the first half of 2014 was estimated at a record of nearly 208 million hundredweights, production in the second quarter was little changed from the year before. An upward move to 105,143,000 hundredweights in April-June 2014 from 104,899,000 the year earlier does not seem to be the stuff of banner headlines, even in Milling & Baking News. Still, valuable insights may be gleaned from the quarterly report.
While the modest production increase may be unimpressive in absolute terms and also suggests production growth during the quarter that failed to keep up with population growth, flour milling and grain-based foods more generally should take considerable satisfaction in any growth in U.S. flour demand in an environment that could only be described as toxic when it comes to what the public sees, hears and reads when it comes to the market for “refined grains.” Several years into the gluten-free craze with no clear signs of imminent abatement and with a steady expansion in the number of products introduced expressly to help consumers avoid nearly all products offered by flour milling companies, the modest gain should not be disparaged as a hollow or moral victory for flour milling.
The underlying strength in the market for flour-based foods may best be seen in a scientific study that was widely reported in a way that appeared to give the industry yet another black eye. Published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the study compared weight loss and health measures for two sets of dieters — one cutting back on carbohydrates and the other cutting back on fat intake. Popular news sources focused on elements from the study indicating reducing carbohydrates is a more effective and a healthier way to lose weight than going on a low-fat diet. Critics, including several outside of the industry, found fault in many aspects of the study, including its small size (75 subjects on each diet) and their implausible self-reported diets. The low-fat dieters said they consumed fewer than 1,500 calories per day. If true, analysis by a group including the Grain Foods Foundation and the Wheat Foods Council estimated subjects would have lost 55 to 60 lbs rather than the 8 they were shown to have lost.
More telling, and germane to flour production trends, was indicated compliance to the regimens subjects were assigned to follow. In their self reporting, the reduced-carbohydrate group did not even pretend to come close to following instructions to limit carbohydrate intake to 40 grams per day, an amount considered liberal by Atkins Diet measures (beginning at 20 grams per day). Early on during the intervention, the low-carbohydrate dieters said they were consuming 97 grams of carbohydrates per day, a whopping 240 per cent of the assigned amount. By the end, the figure had crept upward to 127 grams per day, more than 300 per cent of what they were told to consume.
At least as reported, the cohort of subjects told to cut back on fat intake did far better. Instructed to limit fat intake to no more than 30 per cent of total caloric intake, the group averaged about 28 per cent in early months of the study and was right on target at 30 per cent at 12 months.
The results may help explain why it is flour production overall continues to edge upward in an environment in which processed foods in general and carbohydrates such as white flour are lambasted. That subjects who seem well motivated and carefully instructed are unable to follow much less maintain a low-carbohydrate diet goes a long way to explain the wondrous resilience of the industry’s core product.