Editorial: Attack on obesity must not target grain foods

by Morton Sosland
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Flour millers look with amazement, as well as consternation, on the pressures they and their bakery customers, are facing as the result of mounting concern of governmental authorities and consumers over obesity. Even industry neophytes do not have to look back very far to the time when worries about food adequacy, just getting sufficient calories to people to sustain life and growth, dominated international thinking about food. In a sudden change, even for this fast-evolving world, concerns increasingly focus almost exclusively on how rising numbers of people are overweight. These concerns are not just about a few extra pounds above a supposed norm, but center on obesity, where excess weight is viewed as a seriously debilitating health hazard, as the mounting cause of numerous diseases that threaten human life and well-being.

Just how far and how fast these concerns, which have tremendous repercussions for the entire grain-based foods industry, have gone is illustrated by the decision of the World Health Organization to take up the cause of diet-related afflictions. The U.N. agency, which in recent years has battled mainly against global trade in tobacco and in seeking a treaty to limit tobacco product sales, has now begun exploring ways to write and sponsor similar rules governing trade in fatty, sugary high-calorie foods. Diseases blamed on eating the wrong food, such as heart ailments, diabetes and hypertension, are said to cause 60% of the annual deaths around the world. That’s more than 30 million fatalities. Already, WHO officials have met with governments and food industry leaders in the hopes of first drafting a minimum standard for proper diet and exercise, and then securing agreement on trade rules.

In developed countries like the United States, concern with obesity is not just a medical or governmental issue. It is very much in the forefront of cultural attitudes toward food, reflected in the estimate that 60 million Americans at any one time are seeking to curb what they eat in order to lose weight. Here, grain-based foods has taken a severe hit, with recent slowing in the growth, and even decreases, in per capita and total wheat flour consumption attributed to how bread and other industry products are being abandoned in the hope of losing weight.

Grain-based foods producers in the United States face no greater threat than weight-loss prescriptions that counsel against eating bread. Standing at the apogee of these attacks on the industry are the recommendations of the late Dr. Robert Atkins, whose eponymous eating restrictions depend on limiting the intake of carbohydrates. So-called "low carb" diets have become so popular in America that their negative impact on consumption of grain-based foods is taken for granted. Articles in the popular press confuse consumers, particularly when these eating regimens are credited with causing immediate weight loss, without any warning of possible long-term damage to health. More recent articles relate how consumption of bread in restaurants has suffered a dramatic fall as people and food preparers embrace this idea.

Just as the developing nations that are major producers of sugar and palm oil have expressed concern to the WHO over the possible economic impact of international limits on trade in their products, flour millers and bakers in the developed nations are vigorously reacting to warn consumers about diets that counsel against eating carbohydrates. For the first time in many years, the leading associations of flour millers and bakers in the United States have expressed an interest in a joint educational effort. The perception is that a comprehensive effort is needed, one that has specific goals related to consumption levels and consumer appreciation for the vital role flour-based foods have in maintaining and improving health, including the proper weight.

There’s no reason why a well conceived and effectively executed program could not transform the worry currently prevailing about how the fight against obesity will affect the industry into a great positive for future consumption growth.