Millers struggle as health fears sap flour demand

Gluten claimed toxic | Flour millers trying to counter negative health portrayals of wheat

A couple of popular diet books have taken a toll on wheat flour production in Canada, say industry officials.

The amount of milled wheat and wheat flour produced in Canada has averaged 2.87 million tonnes per year from 2011-13, which is down eight percent from the 3.12 million tonne annual average from 2001-10.

Gordon Harrison, president of the Canadian National Millers Association, said the decline in wheat milling coincides with the 2011 release of Wheat Belly, a New York Times bes seller by William Davis, which contends modern wheat is toxic and makes people want to eat more junk food.

“That was the first wave of attack or assault on wheat,” said Harrison.

Davis’s book was followed in 2013 by Grain Brain, another international best seller by David Perlmutter, which contends carbohydrates from grain are destroying brains and causing dementia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, chronic headaches and depression.

Harrison is convinced the two books have reduced demand for products made with milled wheat and wheat flour.

“That is probably the major factor in consumer behavioural change that has driven demand for flour,” he said.

Trade statistics indicate flour demand remains solid in most export markets, except for the United States, which is the hotbed of the anti-gluten movement.

Harrison said the encouraging news is that the U.S. set a three-month record for flour production in early 2014. It follows a couple of years where bakery sales were de-clining at a clip of three to five percent per year.

He hopes the record flour production signifies a turn-around in consumer attitudes. The U.S. is usually a year or two ahead of Canada when it comes to trends in the food and beverage sector.

Bruce Burnett, CWB weather and crop specialist, said the situation reminds him of the 2002 Atkins Diet craze, which reduced wheat consumption but eventually faded away.

“With dietary fads, what happens is they sort of come to a crescendo at a certain point in time about a year after they’ve been on Oprah,” he said.

“Then they go away.”

Burnett said nutritional science eventually weeds out the facts from the fads.

“This waxing and waning will happen, so I guess I’m not that concerned about it,” he said.

Harrison said population-related growth in North American wheat flour demand is helping offset the negative impact of the diet books.

Canada and the U.S. are home to 350 million people, and the population is growing by one percent per year. It means 3.5 million more people to feed each year, many of whom are immigrants who aren’t averse to eating wheat.

“Population growth in Canada and the U.S. will ultimately offset this consumer behaviour, which could be fairly short term, and the industry will experience sustained but very moderate growth like it has done for many years,” said Harrison.

In the meantime, bakers and millers have funded the Healthy Grains Institute to dispel what they consider to be myths surrounding the gluten-free diet.