Josh Sosland
When mulling the downward drift of per capita flour consumption in recent years, it has been tempting to fixate on fad diets as a driving force responsible for dimmed public perceptions of baked foods. The continued large percentage of consumers avoiding or trying to avoid gluten intake is rightly thought to be a key negative in the market for flour-based foods.

Still, as industry executives look to address root causes for disappointing sales, important forces other than gluten avoidance may be at play. A study published in December 2017 by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests that demographic forces may be a major contributor to the public’s shift away from grains.

In an exploration of how millennial consumers’ purchasing patterns differ from older generations, the U.S.D.A. discovered that this generation devotes a smaller share of its food expenditures on grains than the three older generations probed in the survey.

Overall, the grains category in 2014 accounted for 9.6 per cent of millennial (consumers born between 1981 and 1996) spending on food at home, versus 10.4, 11.3 and 10.7 per cent, for Gen X’ers (born 1965-1980), baby boomers (1946-64) and traditionalists (born pre-1946), respectively. The largest among the 22 food categories tracked in the study, grains are a catch-all segment encompassing dozens of products, including wheat flour, hot cereal, ready-to-eat cereal, rice and tortillas — but not baked foods or pasta.

The Department built its analysis around an Information Resources, Inc. 2014 Consumer Network data sample from more than 116,000 distinct households, focusing on a subset of about 28,000 households that provide data on both U.P.C.-code purchases and purchases of random-weight products such as fresh fruits and vegetables. The findings were complemented by other data relating to food consumption, preparation and purchases by 25,000 individuals participating in a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, together with related U.S.D.A. data.

The spending habits of millennials are important not only to offer a glimpse into the future but because they are the largest living adult population in the United States today, eclipsing baby boomers. The researchers note millennials are more racially diverse, highly educated and more technologically literate than predecessor generations and shop differently as well. For instance, millennials shop less frequently overall but more frequently at convenience stores. They are more likely to use same-day delivery services and over-index as buyers of organic food.

Millennials spend 12 minutes less time eating and drinking each day than traditionalists and significantly less time on food preparation, presentation and clean-up — 55 minutes, versus 143 minutes for Gen X’ers.

More favorable in the U.S.D.A. data were figures for millennial spending on bakery and pasta. In both cases, the figures for millennials eclipsed those for the other age cohorts. The spread for pasta was particularly strong. Pasta accounts for 4.1% of food at home spending for millennials, versus 2.9% for traditionalists. Spending on pasta declined among millennials as income levels increased. In general, the millennials were more predisposed toward processed foods, including snacks, sugar and sweets, and prepared foods than older generations.

The Department emphasized the importance of the income impact on the spending habits as well as differences for so-called “recession millennials” (those who joined the working force between December 2007 and June 2009), whose behavior may have been formatively shaped by early career experiences.

Within grain-based foods and food and beverages generally, the widening variety of food products consumed has been as important a driver of change as any over the last 50 years. The days of white bread, saltine crackers and two-shapes of spaghetti and macaroni dominating grain-based foods are in the past. Still, the diversity of the millennial generation (a cohort that will be eclipsed by Generation Z), suggests that demand for variety is destined in coming years for ever greater heights.