Five-year data recently issued from the Census Bureau about the commercial bakeries industry was at once sobering, encouraging and perplexing. The value of shipments for commercial bakeries in 2007 was up 7% from 2002, the smallest five-year increase at least since the 1970s. At the same time, several key categories for the industry were up solidly, most notably bread, up 28%, and white bread, up a respectable 16%.

The industry’s entire employee-base declined in 2007 by 10% from 2002, to 142,510, but the number of production workers actually rose 2% over the period, to 84,338.

With an industry as large and complicated as baking, encompassing a varied range of products and companies of all shapes and sizes, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that seeming contradictions would emerge. The five-year period covered in the Census survey encompassed what perhaps was the most turbulent period in the history of modern baking.

In addition to the bankruptcy of the company that, at the time, was the industry’s largest, the five years included mounting national outcry over rising obesity rates. The stunning popularity of the Atkins diet did more damage to the bread business, at least for a period of time, than many thought possible. How commercial baking will fare in 2008 to 2012 stands as a major open question nearly two years in.

Many of the industry’s products, particularly sweet goods, remain in the cross hairs of a public looking for simple explanations to rising obesity rates. At the same time, many of baking’s products should be central in helping improve eating in the United States. The industry will need to work hard to be sure these issues play out in a way favorable both to the industry and the public’s interest.