SPOKANE - You know the expression "the best thing since sliced bread," but did you realize sliced bread was actually one of the worst things for the wheat industry?

That's because when people used to cut bread themselves, they tended to make slices bigger and there was more waste.

Now, the wheat industry is facing another "worst-case scenario since sliced bread," said Dave Green, director of quality control and laboratory services for ADM. Bakers' use of enzymes to keep bread fresher for longer periods is "the worst possible news for flour millers" as it results in less flour consumption.

Actually, there's a lot of bad news to choose from when it comes to domestic wheat use. After peaking at 147 pounds in 1996, U.S. per capita wheat flour disappearance has decreased to 141 pounds in 2001.

Green said the five-year decline corresponds with the release of the Atkins diet and its emphasis on consuming high-protein foods. Although a Gallup poll in 2002 showed a decrease in the number of those who subscribed to the diet, publicity surrounding it has made all dieters aware of the importance of limiting carbohydrates.

Green conceded that people do lose weight on the diet, but short-term studies have shown kidney damage and bone loss as a result. There is also no long-term research to show if the weight stays off. Another strike against wheat is a Harvard scientist's research that builds a food pyramid based on a Glycemic Index. This refers to how quickly or slowly carbohydrates are metabolized.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid has grains at its base. Its recommendations call for six to 11 servings of grains daily. In the Glycemic Pyramid, however, white bread and pasta are considered foods to eat sparingly, and all grains are in the top two tiers.

The researcher who came up with the theory claims high-glycemic foods contribute to diabetes and increase appetite, which is responsible for obesity in the United States. Green, however, said obesity may have more to do with the fact that Americans increased their caloric consumption by more than 90,000 calories annually between 1990 and 2001. This equates to 26 pounds of weight gain a year.

Transfats are another problem for the wheat industry. Although refined oils are healthful, they can't be used in many products. Transfats are created by the hydrogenation of vegetable oils. Sweet bakery goods, particularly items like doughnuts and Danish, have large amounts of these solid fats, which have been shown to raise blood cholesterol.

The Food and Drug Administration is calling for transfat labels. Green said they won't be on products for at least two or three years.

There is good news for the wheat industry, too. The fact that 46 percent of food dollars are now spent away from home - expected to rise to 53 percent in 2010 - is positive for the industry. That's because consumption of fast foods increases flour usage.

Pizza - which 93 percent of Americans eat at least once a month - is a $32 billion a year industry, and its second-most-important ingredient is flour. Bagels - which most people had never seen 10 years ago - are now a $750 million a year industry.

What Green called "tortillas triumph" referred to the fact that consumption of the Mexican product has increased 57 percent since 1996. A $4 billion industry, tortillas are now the second-top-selling bread product. Per capita consumption is now 9 pounds.

Mandatory folic acid enrichment in flour has also had positive fallout. Since it began in 1998, neural tube birth defects have decreased 23 percent. Folic acid also shows promise to decrease the risk of heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's and some cancers.

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