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What America’s changing bread preferences say about its politics

Once upon a time, Americans spent more money on white bread than wheat. Actually, that was only five years ago.

White bread consumption, measured in dollars terms, has fallen by 20% since 2005, while that of its healthier, whole grain counterpart has soared by 70%, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor.

But movement in the sliced bread department is hardly the only trend affecting supermarket bread aisles these days. Americans are also spending more money on bagels, buns, rolls, and, especially, tortillas. Over the past decade, tortilla consumption has jumped by more than 60% in the US, and now amounts to more than $2.5 billion annually. Not long ago, tortilla sales accounted for a mere fraction of overall industrial bread sales—roughly 12%—but now they contribute a sizable chunk—upwards of 17%.

Why do changing American bread preferences matter? Well, they don't. Not really, anyway. And much less if you aren't part of the American Bakers Association, or aren't responsible for producing one of the top grossing national bread brands. But as silly as our shifting carb choices likely seem, they might actually tell us a bit about our country, its population, and, even, its politics.

America's growing love for tortillas is both a story of carb consciousness and current immigration trends. On the one hand, consumers are opting for wraps instead of sandwiches. "Using wraps instead of sandwiches is something consumers have steadily started to adopt," Matt Hudak, an industry analyst at Euromonitor said in an interview. But a growing Mexican population is also playing its part. "Latinos have been responsible for an ever-increasing share of consumer buying power in the US," a 2011 report titled Tortilla's Triple Play said. Hudak agrees. "Many food and beverage projects targeted at this demographic have seen strong growth," he said.

The thing about Hispanics is that there aren't merely that many more of them in the United States today than, say, thirty years back—they are more than three times as numerous as they were in 1980—they also offer one of the clearest signs of the current political headwinds in the country today. Our fast-growing Hispanic population skews left. And heavily so. In the last presidential election, 71 percent voted for Obama, while only 27 percent voted for Romney.

Even the shift to whole wheat bread, which is no doubt driven by the growing health narrative about its nutritional benefits, carries with it subtle political implications. Flowers Foods, which sells Wonder Bread, Nature's Own, and a number of other highly recognizable brands, still earns more than a fifth (pdf p. 5) of its business from the sale of white loaves. The less white bread Americans buy, the more the company (and others like it) will have to scramble to replace its white flour proceeds. If Flowers Foods doesn't manage to, it will likely eat into its profits, and the company's political contributions—which are significant, and just so happen to skew Republican more than any other company in the country.