A deep look into recently published data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about per capita consumption of flour powerfully suggests grain-based foods needs to shed an oversimplistic use of what for decades has been the principal barometer of industry health. At first blush, the data suggest that momentum gained earlier in the decade has been lost. Average per capita flour disappearance in 2009 of 134.7 lbs was down 1.3% from 2008 and was near the recent low of 134.5 lbs in 2004.While certainly a matter of concern, the single-minded focus on per capita availability of flour offers no insight into important trends in the food marketplace. It ignores volatile cross-currents, including the economy, continuing changes in the nation’s ethnic profile, gains in manufacturing and distribution efficiency and the public’s response to rising levels of obesity. Each of these forces potentially exerts an influence on flour consumption while offering scant information as to the degree to which any particular consumer favors flour-based foods over alternatives. Consider the nation’s response to obesity. Per capita caloric intake, as estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, actually declined between 2003 and 2008 (the most recent year for which data have been released) by 1.8%, to 2,674 calories daily. The performance of grains and other food categories should be measured against this overall decline. During this five-year period flour and cereal products actually registered a 1.5% gain in per capita intake, to 625 calories daily from 616. Every other food group tracked by the U.S.D.A. sustained a decline, including meat, eggs and nuts, down 1.4%; dairy, down 1.2%; added fats, down 1.8%, and caloric sweeteners, down 3.8%. Even factoring in the 1.3% decrease in 2009, grains appear to have outperformed food choice alternatives. As the grain-based foods industry charts a course to best communicate to the public the benefits of its products in the years ahead, a clear-eyed, multi-dimensional understanding of consumption trends is crucial. Similarly, the industry must think hard about what will represent the most appropriate gauges of success or failure. Beyond just average per capita disappearance, “share of stomach” and household penetration are two measures that could prove key to the best strategies for a new decade.
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