With time on my hands this week, worrying and wondering about loved ones in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I was struck by a fascinating web post: That, as a country, we’re consuming sharply declining amounts of wheat products -- less bread and rolls, less wheat-based breakfast cereals, fewer English muffins and even fewer wheat tortillas. Sales of bread loaves are down 11.3% over a recent five-year period -- and falling, even as our population grows. Given the vast numbers of Big Macs, Subway sandwiches and Domino's pizzas we buy every day, these data, from Food Navigator USA, seemed counterintuitive to me. Since our national waistlines aren't shrinking, we must be eating more of something else, so I began to wonder where the replacement calories are coming from. Three large trends reveal the answers: A change in how we shop for food; big ethnic shifts in eating habits away from meat-and-potato diets and an explosion of endless snacking.
Start with snacking: Granola bar sales were up 16 percent in the same period (and still rising), so that's one place where oats clearly is replacing wheat -- a packaged snack trumps a sandwich.
In addition, a recently released 2013 food and beverage forecast by international restaurant consultants Baum+Whiteman talks about the "snackification of America" -- noting that snacks now account for about one-in-five eating occasions, and that we've become a nation of serial munchers seeking foods that are portable. "If it fits in your car's cup holder, if you can eat it with one hand, or better yet, two fingers ... then it's being tested in (restaurant) chains' R&D kitchens," they say.
Another study, by Rabobank, noted that all packaged snack bar sales -- consisting mostly of energy, nutrition, granola/muesli, and fruit bars -- have almost doubled in the last ten years. These may sound "healthy" but by and large they're laden with sugar -- which tells me a bit more about where those extra calories are coming from.
Equally important, we've gradually been abandoning the archipelago of shelving in the center of our supermarkets, steering our shopping carts around the edges, where we find vivid fresh products as opposed to cardboard packages -- and this trend is accelerating among younger people (who've gotten the eat-better message) and among single people across the board. So it's down with Cheerios and Fruit Loops and up with carrots and broccoli, chicken and salmon.
The folks at ConAgra, where they sell grains by the carload, told the newsletter Food Navigator that supermarkets are "suffering from 50 shades of beige as ... we shift from a meat-and-potatoes European diet to a more modern, colorful, multi-textured, multi-flavored diet influenced by Asian and Latino food."
Aha! In addition to oats, we're buying more rice and more corn-based products because that's what Asians and Latinos like to eat -- and, nationally, we're increasingly thrilled with their flavors, aromas and spices. Less gravy, more salsa. More corn chips. Brilliant idea by Taco Bell to add Doritos flavorings to their taco shells. Will Burger King someday stuff crunchy corn nachos into their Whoppers in America -- just as they're doing right now in Taiwan?
Four other factors are at play. There's the artisan bread movement with bakers kneading not just wheat but all manner of grains to produce a denser product that's eaten more slowly (I think of my husband's weekly two-day ritual to bake one large sour and aromatic whole-grain rye bread studded with barley; it lasts a week). There's the growing anti-gluten brigade of people who, with celiac disease or not, believe they should avoid wheat for health reasons.
There's also been a swing among fast-casual chains (like Chipotle) toward serving food in bowls instead of wraps, and a rise in salad sales at fast food chains, all taking a dent out of bread consumption.
And finally there's the residual from last decade's anti-carbohydrate movement when white foods and sweet stuff were forsaken by carnivores hoping to trim their midsections.
As for me, I'll still slather my homemade jam on a slice of my husband's warm homemade bread. It's a far better snack than a granola bar any time of the day.