Josh Sosland PortraitWith optimism mounting containment of the COVID-19 pandemic is within reach, the importance of understanding the long-term ramifications of this global catastrophe has intensified as well.

For grain-based foods, it may be tempting to focus on dramatic jumps in sales of products like bread and ready-to-eat breakfast cereal as a legacy of the pandemic. In the case of bread, sales over the last 52 weeks were up 10%, according to data from Information Resources Inc., and baking executives have discussed the precious opportunity provided by the surging numbers of new households trying various products.

Still, there is good cause to be skeptical over whether the benefit from this sales windfall will be sustained. Data from IRI indicate overall sales of consumer-packaged foods have climbed 10% over the past year, meaning grain-based foods are simply holding share. Cooped-up families were trying new grain-based foods as they were many packaged foods to add variety into their diets while they avoided or were unable to eat out at restaurants. Yes, bakers and others have benefited from increased trial by new households, but in nearly all cases competitors’ products also have enjoyed such trials.

Companies looking to keep new customers likely will be challenged to fight off greater attrition than usual from legacy customers. Total flour production in 2020 was up less than 1%, another indication that eating patterns have not abruptly shifted in favor of baked foods.

So what for grain-based foods will be the long-enduring legacy of the pandemic? One consequence industry executives ought to consider is health and wellness generally and obesity in particular. Rising obesity rates have been a matter of public health concern for years, blamed for the surging incidence of diabetes and other chronic diseases. Consumption levels of enriched grains often inappropriately have been singled out at times as a factor, but it is clear health and wellness concerns have factored into the steady and fairly consistent decline in per capita flour consumption since the early 2000s.

Now, obesity — and by extension the American diet —will be blamed not just for rising rates of chronic disease but also for worsened outcomes for acute disease, such as COVID-19. Obesity may triple the risk of hospitalization due to a COVID-19 infection, is linked to impaired immune function and can make ventilation more difficult, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only old age is a greater risk factor when it comes to negative COVID-19 outcomes.

“As BMI increases, the risk of death from COVID-19 increases,” the CDC said. The heightened risk is not unique to the coronavirus. The CDC cited studies demonstrating obesity is linked to diminished vaccine responses for numerous potential deadly diseases, including influenza, hepatitis B and tetanus. But it was COVID that brought the risk into focus.

Mississippi is among 30 states greenlighting “obesity for inclusion in the first phases of the vaccine rollout,” according to a recent report from the Kaiser Health News. Kaiser story said two-thirds of Americans exceed what is characterized as a healthy weight and 42% fall into the obesity range.

When the pandemic ends, concern about the health risks related to obesity will not. It’s also likely misinformation will accompany discussions of the issue.

In the Kaiser Health News study, author Sarah Varney writes, “The rise of obesity in the US over the past half-century has been well documented, as the nation turned from a diet of fruits, vegetables and limited meats to one laden with ultraprocessed foods and rich with tasty salt, fat, sugar and artificial flavorings, along with copious amounts of meat, fast-food and soda.”

Ms. Varney’s gauzy picture of the US diet 50 years ago is at odds with readily available data from the US Department of Agriculture. Between 1970 and 2019, per capita red meat consumption fell by 21%. Fresh fruit intake jumped 33% over this period, and fresh vegetables were up 14%. Intake of caloric sweeteners were up 3.5%.

A superficial review of dietary changes over the past 50 years does pose challenges for grain-based foods. Overall grains intake is up sharply over this period. With a heightened focus on obesity likely, it’s likely bakers and millers will see even greater scrutiny directed at their products. The need for the industry to invest in the resources necessary to defend the place grains play in healthy diets has never been more urgent.