The erosion of bread consumption as part of home prepared dinners may be a key factor in continued overall weakness in the fresh bread category, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst and vice-president of NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y.

“We are eating main evening meals that tend to have fewer foods in them,” Balzer said. “Side dishes tend to get thrown out in this equation. The fourth most popular side dish in America at dinner is a piece of bread. Having bread with an evening meal is one of the fastest declining items in the diet.”

Balzer offered comments about bread consumption for the annual Bread Industry Perspective, to be published in the Sept. 17 issue of Milling & Baking News. He was responding to Information Resources, Inc. data showing a third consecutive year of declining bread sales. He noted a distinction between what I.R.I. estimates, sales, and what NPD tracks, consumption.

For the baking industry, the decline of bread as a meal time accompaniment may trigger a sense of déjà vu, Balzer said.

“I have been seeing a long-term slide in bread consumption for many years,” he said. “First it was in breakfast. Toast was the fastest declining product in America for a long time. There was a major shift away from breakfast at home.”

This shift largely was toward food service, where breakfast sandwiches have a commanding market share, Balzer said. In many cases, sandwiches feature baked foods other than sliced bread.

Similarly, he said sandwiches are the top main dish served for dinner at home, whether it is a sandwich made from sliced bread, rolls or buns.

“But sandwiches account for only 11% to 12% of dinnertime meals, so there is plenty of upside opportunity for bread,” Balzer said.

In terms of the growth in food service breakfast sales, he said while 48% to 49% of away-from-home breakfast selections are a sandwich, only 2% to 3% of home breakfasts includes a sandwich.

“There is a lot of room to replace cereal, but it probably is not going to be a sandwich produced at home,” he said. “It either will be food service or frozen food.”

School lunches are less likely in the past to contain sandwiches, but Balzer said the continuing popularity of sandwiches throughout the day among adults points to a major change in what consumers are buying in away-from-home outlets.

“The battle for convenient fresh is being fought over sandwich,” Balzer said. “Consumers want fresh bread, produce and meat. There is a lot of demand, and the battle is being won by foodservice, just as it is being won by foodservice at breakfast. Making a sandwich is being replaced by someone else making that sandwich. Let Jimmy John’s worry about fresh bread. Let Subway or Firehouse Subs worry. It’s not about cooked foods. It’s fresh foods. A restaurant is now a place to assemble fresh ingredients, not to cook.”

Despite its challenges, Balzer said “there is no better category” than bread, in part because of its vast size.

“The changes in sandwiches over the last 20 to 25 years have been remarkable,” he said. “There is a beauty to how bread brings together lots of products, and a sandwich becomes the meal. Hummus may be growing faster, but I’d rather be in the bread business.”