The recent estimate by the Economic Research Service pointing to per capita flour disappearance in the United States holding nearly unchanged for a dozen years in a row is not only statistically miraculous but reveals a uniqueness for grain-based foods that is shared by few, if any, other major food sectors. When the steadiness of per capita flour use, which amounted to 135 pounds in 2014 and has been near that total since 2002, is measured against the turmoil that ruled in wheat flour and related food businesses in that period, this stability becomes remarkable. These are years that witnessed unprecedented price swings in wheat and flour prices, that saw earth-shaking changes in ownership of both wheat milling and its major customer base in baking, that saw wheat milling in other parts of the world undergo tortuous shifts.
No easy explanation is at hand for the hugely positive aspects of the wheat milling business in America as compared not just to other U.S. food sectors but related to how milling has performed in other nations. Even as per capita flour held steady, many important food industries experienced shrinking markets due largely to demand pattern shifts that reflected negative consumer demand trends. More than a few of these other food sectors are experiencing recently the same massive shifts in consumer food purchases that hit the wheat flour market in the first 70 or so years of the 20th century. In that timeframe, flour per capita consumption dropped from 232 pounds at the start of the 20th century to a low of 110 pounds in the early 1970s.
Saying that present-day milling is benefiting from the horrific per capita losses experienced in the past century may be claiming a victory simply based on living in a different time. But whatever the reason, including the rapid increase occurring in per capita use in the closing decades of the past century, millers owe their predecessors great gratitude for the stability currently ruling.
While the per capita figure, determined by dividing total domestic disappearance by average population, has great importance for what it says about eating patterns, the calculation that means the most is actual annual wheat flour disappearance. Even as per capita has been amazingly steady, domestic disappearance has been nicely rising year after year. Even with per capita use down a whopping 100 pounds from its peak in the early 1900s, when American food patterns starkly differed from the present, total usage of flour is twice what it was as recently as the early 1960s. While individual food products may be cited that enjoyed much greater growth than this, it is rare the food sector as large as wheat flour that comes even near approaching such performance.
Following is a table averaging the principal measures of wheat flour consumption by decades from the post-World War II 1950s into this, the second decade of the 21st century:
It is obvious that the new century began disappointingly for milling and its customers in baking. That a marked rebound began in the second decade not only is reason for an optimistic assessment of where milling is heading in a period when consumer tastes and demands are showing faster transformations than ever experienced in the stormy past. Flour milling and grain-based foods have many reasons to celebrate their current performance. Even such prolonged stability as ruling in per capita consumption needs to be understood and analyzed as a record proudly achieved, but one that needs constant attention through industrywide efforts. Successes in such efforts are essential to preventing reversals and perhaps even a way to cause a per capita uptrend after this record long period of stability.