Wheat product use: trends in Latin America

by Teresa Acklin
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Promotional efforts needed to increase per capita consumption of wheat foods.

By Jorge David

   Cereals have played a major role throughout the history of different civilizations: wheat in the West, rice in the Orient and maize in Pre-Colombian America. Until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, wheat — and the products derived from it — was an unknown grain in the vast territories discovered on that memorable 12th of October in 1492.

   The Spanish conquistadors, lacking grain, subsisted in those first years by resorting to native crops and hunting. They sustained themselves principally with maize and potatoes, products hailing from the Americas. But as soon as they extended their domains, settled down in the newly discovered and conquered lands and established towns and villages, they yearned even more for a return to the dietary habits predominating in their distant homeland. This desire pushed them to bring from the Iberian Peninsula the seeds, plants and animals necessary for initiating cultivation and raising crops that in the future would provide their subsistence and satisfy their food longings.

   However, the arrival of wheat in the Americas is a controversial subject. Even historians have not been successful in reaching an agreement concerning when and where wheat was planted for the first time in the hemisphere.

   According to historian Andres de Tapia, the first person to plant wheat was a Portuguese man named Juan Garrido, servant of the Conquistador Hernan Cortes. He planted it in what is present day Mexico and the United States, at one of the manor houses of Cortes on the road that later would be called Melchor Ocampo. This land eventually was ceded by Cortes to Garrido as a reward for his help in the Christian burial of Spaniards following the Noche Triste.

   But historians such as Lopez de Gomara, Orozco and Berra agree that the first wheat planted in the New Territories discovered by Columbus was on Espanola Island, the present-day Santo Domingo, in 1522 or 1523.

   Yet another source, the Administrations of Colonial Monuments and the Republic of Mexico, has placed a plaque with the following legend on the door of house number 66 on Ribera de San Cosme street:

   “On the land which these houses occupy, given to Hernan Cortes by (King) Carlos V, wheat was planted for the first time in America. ... 1527 Administrations of Colonial Monuments and the Republic of Mexico”

   What is certain is that, before the arrival of the Spanish, the diet of the native peoples in the New Lands was based primarily on maize, potatoes and roots such as yucca. The Aztec and Mayan cultures, which practically dominated Mexico and Central America, were characterized by the intensive consumption of maize in the form of tortillas, a circumstance that inspired the Spanish conquistadors to call maize “the wheat of the Indians.”

   By 1534, wheat was being produced in Texcoco and Puebla, and from there the Jesuits took the cultivation to southern California. In the meantime, Friar Franciscano Jadoco Rixi (Joost de Rycke Van Marselaer) obtained permission in 1532 from Empress Isabel, wife of Carlos V, to travel to Mexico. In November of 1533, he embarked in San Lucar de Borrameda with the destination of Espanola Island.

   There, the General Commissioner of the Indias sent him to Nicaragua, from where he headed to Peru. From Lima, accompanied by Friar Flamenco Fray Pedro Gosseal, he traveled by foot to Quito, where they built a chapel, which today has been converted into the San Francisco Convent of Quito.

   Jadoco Rixi, in the luggage he had brought from Spain, carried a small ceramic container full of grains of wheat, which he planted in front of the chapel. In this way, he initiated South American wheat production, since from Quito he went to Lima and from there took seeds to Chile, the country that, in time and until the first half of this century, converted itself not only into the granary of Latin America but also provided wheat and flour to the United States, Australia and China, among other countries.

   In a parallel fashion and as a clear example of societal-cultural mixing, natives, who had been uprooted from their natural means of life by being incorporated into Indian slave labor and royal land grants, began acquiring dietary habits from their Spanish masters, incorporating into their daily diet the consumption of bread. This demand pushed the cultivation of wheat in the majority of the lands throughout the Americas.

   Later, the migratory movements of Europeans caused the gradual incorporation of other wheat products, such as noodles, into the diet of Latin American inhabitants. Cookies and crackers are products that today occupy a prominent place in the Latin American diet.

Current Trends

   Today, from the group of 35 nations that constitute Latin America and the Caribbean, only 11 produce wheat in greater or lesser volume. Of these, Argentina — besides being the only self-sufficient producer — is situated among the six largest wheat exporting nations.

   Despite the dizzying development of computer information, obtaining reliable statistical breakdowns on consumption trends for flour and products in Latin America is practically impossible. Although the accompanying tables and charts contain only partial figures, I believe they are representative of trends in the regions.

   Today, growth in consumption in the majority of countries in the region lags behind population growth, a reflection of negative publicity campaigns based on the presumed responsibility of wheat products in obesity. The lag has caused the outbreak of an endemic problem in Latin America, that of an excess of installed wheat milling capacity, which is associated with the majority of the milling industry in Latin America.

   The increase in consumption in past decades spurred construction of new mills and expansion of others that exceeded real consumption growth. As a consequence, today we see the existence of considerable and worrisome idle capacity, which provokes destructive competition.

   Various nations, such as Mexico and those in Central America, have diets based principally on maize. In those countries, in my judgment, the potential exists for expanding consumption through vigorous publicity campaigns capable of restoring the prestige of wheat products.

   Argentina. Of principally Italian and Spanish origin, Argentina's population traditionally has been addicted to bread and pastas. As seen in Table 1, Argentina has the highest per capita consumption in Latin America, and based on wheat grind, its flour use has been relatively stable.

   But these figures are not truly representative of actual consumption, given that Argentina is an active flour exporter. Chart 1 illustrates net consumption — after exports — expressed in flour, and it shows that real per capita flour use in Argentina has been on the decline.

   Chile. In Chile, consumption of flour for baking also has registered a decline, as seen in Table 2. But the table also shows that durum milling has recorded increases as a consequence of pasta exportation.

   Mexico. Mexico offers a clear example of the real loss that wheat products are experiencing in Latin America.

   Consumption maintained moderate growth from 1990 to 1993, but starting in 1994, a considerable decline occurred in the consumption of bread, as well as in the consumption of cookies and crackers. Pasta consumption has experienced erratic changes.

   Maize has gained at the expense of bread, with maize-based products recording constant growth since 1991. While the population grew 12% from 1990 to 1995, wheat milling registered a 28% drop in those years. At the same time, the increase in consumption of maize-based products from 1991 to 1995 was 33.7%.

   Brazil. Brazil is the only country in the region that has experienced an increase in wheat use exceeding the rate of population growth. While population has increased by 7.5%, industrial milling between 1990 and 1995 has grown by 23%.

   Venezuela. Between 1990 and 1995, Venezuela has experienced a population growth of 11.9%. In the same period, Venezuela has recorded the following increases in consumption:

Dried pasta7.86%
Maize products21.44%

   From 1990 through 1995, Venezuela has imported an annual average of 1.039 million tonnes of wheat. The import figure is impressive because Venezuela does not produce wheat.

   But among grain-based food products, maize is the only grain for which product consumption has amply exceeded population growth.

   Peru. Peru is the exception in the region. As seen in Chart 2, consumption of dried pasta and maize products has increased. But at the same time, Peru has recorded erratic changes in bread consumption, which might be closely related to the country's economic situation.

A Growth Strategy

   The consumption statistics, although incomplete, tell us that Latin America has the potential industrial milling capacity to satisfy demand from population growth. That potential today remains idle amid circumstances in which the progressive increase in the Latin American standard of living is refining eating habits.

   The increased living standards are opening new doors for products such as bread in a wide range of varieties, cookies, crackers and pasta. But seizing these opportunities requires a promotional campaign to rival that of dairy products, which in recent years have taken over wide market segments through consistent advertising efforts.

   To many of you, this theory concerning milk products might seem absurd. But Chile offers categorical proof of the advances made by one dairy product, yogurt.

   In 1973, no figures existed for the consumption of yogurt. As quickly as 1975, the first statistic on yogurt use was reported, at 3.8 million tonnes. By 1980, yogurt consumption had nearly quintupled to more than 15 million tonnes, and by 1985, it had doubled again, to 30.3 million.

   In 1990, yogurt consumption in Chile was 50.9 million tonnes. In 15 years, per capita consumption had increased by 920% amid a population increase of only 30% in the same period.

   My theory is based on observation of the evolution in consumption habits in Chile. Before 1973, tradition included street vendors selling from tricycle carts in the city, construction workers at noon eating French bread with dried beef, and children whose mothers sent them to school with a cheese sandwich in a lunch box. And what do we have today?

   A yogurt cart replacing street vendors' tricycles, which already have become ancient history. The construction worker at lunch sips from a container of yogurt. And my grandchildren take yogurt with them instead of a sandwich.

   Jorge David is director of Chile's milling association and is a historian specializing in wheat and grain. Mr. David prepared this article in conjunction with his presentation at the March 1997 PANamericano conference in Mexico City, sponsored by World Grain's sister publication, Milling and Baking News.

Table 1— Consumption of processed wheat

Wheat usePopulationPer capita
(in million(in thousandconsumption
tonnes)inhabitants)(in kg)

   Source: Jorge David

Table 2 — Chile wheat, durum consumption in terms of wheat grind

PopulationMillingPer capitaDurumPer capita
(in thousandwheat grindconsumptiongrindconsumption
inhabitants)(in thousand(in kg)(in thousand)(in kg)

   Source: Jorge David

Table 3 — Central America wheat product consumption in kg


Costa Rica1992-9322.03.93.7
El Salvador1992-9312.77.70.0

   Source: Jorge David