Rice off the menu: Asia’s hunger for bread and pastries boosts wheat demand

South Korea is losing some of its appetite for rice in favour of wheat as bread and pastries become a trendy new staple.

From working mothers, who find toast more convenient to prepare for breakfast, to city dwellers flocking to trendy eateries for baguettes, South Koreans are at the forefront of an Asia-wide trend that has seen wheat demand climb at nearly twice the rate of rice consumption since 2008.

“I am very busy in the morning because I have to drop my children off at kindergarten. So, I have bread for breakfast. And I often meet up with my friends at a cafe and enjoy bread with coffee over the weekends,” said Kim Geon-hui, a 34-year-old South Korean working mother who visited a bakery during her lunch break.

South Koreans spent an estimated 6.36 trillion won ($5.37 billion) last year on bread, sandwiches, bagels and pastries, SPC Group, owners of the Paris Croissant and Paris Baguette chains said, who have even opened two stores in the French capital Paris as part of global expansion.

“I am busy working at a company during the week, so I want to be relaxed and have some delicious food with my children over the weekends. But I am too tired, so I try to find something easy to cook for them. I prefer brunch as I can make fancy dishes only with breads and eggs,” said another working mother, 48-year-old Ko Sang-eun.

However, South Korea’s elderly are still looking for restaurants that serve rice. During lunch time at traditional restaurants in downtown Seoul. steamed rice with soup fills the bellies of the older generation, less keen on the wheat-trend.

“My children usually skip breakfast. If not, they just eat bread, snacks or fruits and go to work. However, people my age have to eat rice because we get daily dietary energy from rice throughout our life. Aged people eat rice for every meal,” said 72-year-old Seoul resident Kim Jeong-bok.

South Korea’s rice consumption hit a record low of 65.1 kg per person last year, while flour consumption was the highest since 2006 at 33.9 kg, industry and official data showed.

“More women are working than ever before and do not have enough time (to do household activities). Therefore, brunch has become more popular due its convenience and time-efficiency. With regard to this, the consumption of wheat flour products has increased and there are many different kinds of bakery products compared to the past,” said Lee June-young, a professor of the Department of Consumer and Housing Studies at Sangmyung University.

SPC Group, which runs Asia’s biggest bread making plant and has about 5,000 bakeries in South Korea after starting the business as a small bakery in 1945, said the local bread market has grown at an average of 15 percent per year since 2005.

“The number of Paris Baguette’s bakery stores exceeds over 3,000 now, but there were only 1,000 stores even ten years ago. As a leading brand in the bakery industry, we import and use French wheat in order to differentiate the taste and quality of our products,” said Kim Beom-seong, Chief Communication Officer (CCO) of the company’s public relations department.

With wheat production relatively low in some Asian countries – South Korea only produces about 1-2 percent of what it consumes – there is little alternative but to import more of the grain.

Australia, Russia, Ukraine, Canada, the United States and Europe have been the chief beneficiaries of higher wheat demand in Asia, seeing collective global exports swell by over 40 percent since 2005 to 85 percent of total world trade. (Reuters)