WASHINGTON — After three years of increases, domestic disappearance of wheat flour in the United States decreased by a minimal 0.2% in 2008. The reduction was so slight that it was appropriate to describe wheat flour disappearance as unchanged between the two years. Indeed, when measuring consumption in terms of wheat flour less durum semolina, the net balance gained by an equally tiny 0.3%, but continued the upward trend in this measure for the third straight year.

According to data assembled by the Census Bureau on wheat flour production and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on usage, disappearance of wheat flour in 2008 amounted to 415,999,000 cwts. This was the second largest use of record, exceeded only by 417,155,000 in 2007. Usage had increased for three years in a row beginning in 2005 through 2007.

The performance of this consumption gauge thus far in the first decade of the 21st century indicated that the growth enjoyed by grain-based foods in the final three decades of the 20th century was not continuing into the new century. By the end of 2008, the cumulative gain in wheat flour disappearance was a mere 2,760,000 cwts. That was in sharp contrast with the increases of the previous decades — 74,076,000 cwts in the 1990s, 73,036,000 in the 1980s and 38,776,000 in the 1970s.

The average annual increase thus far in the first decade of the 21st century was only 345,000 cwts. That compares with 7,407,000 in the 1990s, 7,303,000in the 1980s and 3,877,000 in the 1970s. Even in earlier decades when gains seemed slight, average annual increase in the 1960s was 1,381,000 cwts and in the 1950s, 741,100.

With total wheat flour disappearance holding steady in 2008 and population continuing to expand, per capita disappearance of wheat flour decreased in the past year. According to E.R.S. calculations, per capita use of wheat flour in 2008 was 137 lbs, against 138 lbs in the previous year. The latter was the highest since 141 lbs in 2001.

Even with the decrease, per capita use in 2008 was well ahead of the recent low of 134 lbs in 2005. Yet, it also was 10 lbs below the recent high of 147 lbs in 1997, which marked the apex of the amazing climb in per capita flour use that began in the wake of the all-time low of 110 lbs recorded in 1972 and 1971.

It was in 2002 that per capita first decreased to 137 lbs. In the following six years, the range has been between 134 and 138 lbs, indicating a steadiness in this measure of consumption that has not prevailed during most of the 20th and into the 21st century.

In considering these estimates of wheat flour disappearance, it is important to keep in mind that the E.R.S. projects that slightly more than 30% of the available supply is wasted, either in commercial production of flour and flour-based products or at food service and homes.

According to E.R.S. calculations, domestic disappearance of durum semolina in 2008 dropped 7%, dipping to 34,654,000 cwts, against the all-time peak of 37,217,000 in 2007. Durum semolina use had risen for three straight years to reach the 2007 high, from the recent low of 30,972,000 cwts in 2004. Since the early 1990s, when durum mills integrated with pasta manufacturing plants were first included by the Census in estimating production, disappearance has been in a relatively narrow range between 34 million and 37 million cwts.

Deducting durum semolina use from total flour disappearance leaves the non-semolina flour aggregate at 381,345,000 cwts, a record high. It compares with the previous peak of 379,938,000 in 2007. The recent low for non-semolina flour use was 357,109,000 cwts in 2002, which was 20 million cwts less than the 377,583,000 cwts attained in 2000. It was in the early years of the 21st century that consumer demand for grain-based foods was severely impacted by the brief popularity of the Atkins diet and its emphasis on weight reduction by cutting carbohydrate intake.

The 1-lb decrease in per capita consumption of total wheat flour in 2008 from 2007 was repeated in per capita consumption of non-semolina flour. That use for the latest year averaged 125 lbs, against 126 in 2007 and the all-time high of 134 lbs last attained in 2000. At the low point in per capita consumption of all wheat flour in the early 1970s, the average on non-semolina flour was 103 lbs at its nadir.

Per capita consumption is computed by the E.R.S. by dividing the year’s estimated consumption by the July 1 population estimate. The latter aggregate at July 1, 2008, was 304,529,000, against 301,737,000 a year earlier and 298,820,000 in 2006. In 2000, U.S. population was 282,412,000.

Estimating annual flour disappearance in the United States relies on Census Bureau reports on U.S. flour production, adjusted for imports and exports. According to the initial Census estimate, U.S. flour production in 2008 totaled 416,284,000 cwts, against 418,836,000 in 2007 and the record of 421,270,000 in 2000. Imports of wheat flour and flour-containing products in 2008 were placed at 10,822,000, against 11,511,000 in 2007 and the peak of 11,740,000 in 2006.

Adding production and imports results in an aggregate flour supply in 2008 of 427,106,000 cwts, against 430,347,000 in 2007. The latter total was fractionally below the all-time flour supply record of 430,936,000 cwts in 2000.

From the flour supply, the E.R.S. deducts exports of wheat flour and of flour-containing products. Flour exports in 2008 dropped to 4,928,000 cwts from 6,707,000 in 2006. Shipments abroad of semolina, pasta, bulgur and couscous, and other flour-containing products, were the equivalent of 6,179,000 cwts, compared with 6,486,000 in the previous year.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Milling and Baking News, March 24, 2008, starting on Page 1. Click

here to search that archive.