The traditional Latin-American diet offers an incredible array of delicious, healthful foods. Yet the obesity rate among the group doubled during the 1990s to 23.7%, and many diet-related problems like diabetes are now much higher for Latinos as compared to the general population. Mexican-Americans, for example, have the highest age-adjusted rate of Metabolic Syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that increase the likelihood for diabetes and heart disease.

“Urbanized Latinos are the most at-risk population in the world,” asserted Dun Gifford, president and founder, Oldways Preservation Trust, during the second Latin-American Diet Summit held in April in Mexico City. “If we solve their problems, we can help everyone else,” he claimed. The summit gathered scientists, nutritionists, health professionals, foodservice managers, food industry representatives and chefs to explore solutions to diet-related health problems.

Growth in Size and Spending Power

Latino-Americans currently make up 12% of the U.S. population and are the nation's largest minority group. Having increased by 58% to 35 million in the 1990s and currently at 12% of the U.S. population, Latino-Americans are now the nation's largest minority group. Despite larger households and bigger families with more children, during that same time, they also had the sharpest increase in disposable income of any racial or ethnic group. John Price, president of InfoAmericas, reports that since 1991, consumer spending by Latino-Americans increased at a rate three times faster than the growth of their population, climbing at 9.1% annually, 225% quicker than the 2.8% annual increase in population. “At $581 billion in 2002, the U.S. Latino consumer market exceeds Mexico ($488) as the next leading Latin market,” says Price. The Latino-American population is projected to double again, to 70 million, by the year 2020.

Latinos in the U.S. shop twice as often--at nearly five trips per week--than American consumers in general. On their average shopping trip, Latinos spend 21% more at the grocery store than other consumers, about $117 per week, compared to $87 per week for the population at large, making this ethnically specific market ripe with opportunity for healthy food sales.

According to Hannia Campos, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, Latino foodways have much in common with the Mediterranean guide. “It's only the pattern of eating or combination of foods that differs. The basic pyramid stays the same,” says Campos. Both diets are rich in fruits, emphasize vegetables, include minimally processed grains and are abundant in tubers, beans, nuts and seafood. Meats are stretched more in mixed dishes, and sweets are used sparingly. Although olive oil is not part of the Latino food heritage, commonly used squash, seed and peanut oils are rich in unsaturated fats, and other healthy fats are present in avocado. Zarela Martinez, chef and owner of Zarela Restaurant, relates that home-rendered lard is two-thirds unsaturated, insisting, “Lard makes a better tortilla than corn oil.” Martinez is the author of an article entitled, “Praise the Lard: Restoring a Fat's Splattered Reputation.”

Unfortunately, healthful diets become compromised with acculturation. “Veggies and rice is now plain boiled rice,” says Cecilia Pozo Fileti, MS, RD, FADA. Fileti is the president of Latino Health Communications and the newly formed Latino Hispanic American Dietetic Association. She sees other differences as well: “Less rice and beans and fresh fruit; more discretionary calories without activity and more saturated fat.” Claudia Gonzalez, MS, RD and consultant dietitian to the food industry and the U.S. Rice Federation, concurs: “Fresh vegetables decrease while sodas, fruit drinks and high-fat snacks increase,” resulting in diets lower in calcium and iron.

Food preparation influences nutrition in different ways. Ironically, traditionally made corn tortillas are a good source of calcium because of the lime process treatment; they also are a good source of fiber and are low in fat and sugar. “But people are not aware and don't think of them the same way,” relates Rene Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Interamerican College of Physicians and Surgeons, adding that, “40 years ago, 1kg of tortilla was consumed per day. In rural areas, 75% of calories come from tortillas.” Tortilla consumption is now much lower in urban areas, however, as they are seen as difficult to prepare at home.

Latino-Americans are diversified by distinctive subpopulations. Mexican-Americans form the largest majority at 66%, followed by Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Columbians. Their respective individual cuisines are influenced by regional differences. For example, when it comes to spiciness, “Not all are hot,” says Fileti. “Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominican Republicans use more tomato, garlic and black pepper than chilies.” Price offers, “New immigrants come here still yearning for authentic foods. They purchase larger volumes of juice than the general population and drink more exotic flavors of beverages, like agua de jamaica, tamarind, guava, coconut, guarana, lime, watermelon and mango, and they purchase beverages with their children in mind.

Latino-Americans also tend to use fresh ingredients, cook more meals from scratch and eat at home more often compared to the mainstream market. Conversely, “acculturated” Latino-Americans eat out more frequently than mainstream America, often because both heads of the family are working. Acculturated or not, the younger eat out more than the older, though the eating-out trend is gaining frequency among Latinos of all ages.

Marketing to Latinos

Opinions vary among food professionals on how to market the health benefits of traditional Latin cuisine, but they agree that opportunities exist. “To get mainstream,” says Price, “Latin foods need to start with restaurants.” From there, he believes, the cuisine can be simplified in cookbooks and make its way into households. Although it is McDonald's, not Taco Bell, that is the top restaurant choice among U.S. Latinos, foodservice trends show that Latino chefs are in demand for fast-casual dining establishments. Latin flavors are invading mainstream restaurants with salsas, quesadillas, fajitas and nachos. While common Mexican foods are enjoying widespread popularity, new products are creating trends in flavor, adventure, intensity and authenticity, while at the same time incorporating portability and convenience, easy heating and new fusions for high-end cuisine.

Smaller, growing cities with better job markets tend to attract today's new Latino immigrants moreso than established major metro areas, making them “better opportunities for authentic brands,” says Price. Conversely, the acculturated in large cities are used to the Americanized versions. Today's American spin on Latin cuisine includes Mexican-American, Tex-Mex, Southwestern, Mexican, Native American, Floribbean and Nuevo Latin, usually found in New York or California.

Mission Foods discovered that branded products targeted to Mexican Latinos sell well through grass roots efforts, while tortillas for the general population do fine via major retailers. While non-Latinos are buying low-carb tortillas, whole wheat tortilla sales have notably increased without promotion, advertising or price differences.

“Diet and health awareness is growing but lags behind the general population,” says Fileti. The scarcity of culturally specific health marketing communications is key to understanding why healthy eating messages are not getting through in an actionable way. Latinos are “influenced by community, family, acculturation and the retro-culturation trend, age, socioeconomic status, working women, modern communication and the Spanish media,” Fileti asserts, noting as an example that “only 12% still use lard, due to the American Heart Association message. Cooking oil use is up.”

For authentic brand introduction, Price identifies niche markets such as recent immigrants, ethnic stores in barrios, budget brands and mid-market channels such as the “awake” mainstream market and independent retailers. Specialty distributors are the best bet for authentic brands, while industry leaders are the best distributors for “Latin” brands. “When Latino food brands make it to a major retailer, it's a sign that the food has gone mainstream,” says Price. “Manufacturers have to help retailers sell 'authentic' to the population at large, because for retailers to carry it, they need volume,” asserts Asima Syed, senior vice president of marketing for Mission Foods.

Fileti recommends incorporating the flavorful and healthy traditional Latin diet, using family and community, and focusing the presentation as “Nuevo Latino Living.” “The higher the acculturation, the better the opportunity,” says Syed. Eating healthier foods also is apparently a mother's concern, influenced more by what she thinks than by general trends. “The best opportunities for nutrition and health messages are when they marry a Latino or have their first child. They are most open then and most interested when cooking for family,” Syed reports.

“Go for pride, cultural heritage and accomplishment,” suggests Ed Blonz, PhD, syndicated columnist, United Media. “The most available audience is young. The best message is about appearance, energy, disease resistance and fine food. This also can work for the old wanting to be young again.” Blonz also advises that kids are influenced by their peers and social acceptance but, likely, will return to the model they experienced in the home.

Due to the growing dangers of diet-related illness, there is an urgent need for new programs that motivate urbanized Latino individuals and families to embrace culturally relevant patterns that emphasize health-promoting ingredients found in traditional Latin-American diets--potatoes, almonds, tortillas, peanuts, pasta, beans, corn and avocados--which bring lifelong benefits. Food industry officials believe healthful changes can occur if efforts to influence eating habits address the family unit as a whole; promote the pleasures of food; speak in the “language” of Latino foods by reflecting heritage, self-images and style; and emphasize positives. This can be achieved through a partnering of the food industry, chefs and community-based social and church groups.

To bring the food industry together to help improve the health of Latinos, Oldways announced an inaugural Latino Nutrition Coalition and has made available for consumers, health professionals and the media a week's worth of Latino recipes that meet the new U.S. dietary guidelines.

SIDEBAR: Hispanic Food-shopping Habits

Hispanic consumers' countries of origin shape their food preferences:

  • Mexican: Corn and beans, chile-based sauces, heartier stews and moles

  • Puerto Rican and Cuban: Rice and beans, garlic, coconut milk, adobos

  • Central American: Rice, beans and corn, chocolate, cinnamon and chilies

    Meat means “status”; Hispanics spend 37% more per person per year on meat than Caucasian-Americans.

  • Beef is eaten four to five times a week, compared to two to three times a week for non-Hispanics.

  • Pork purchasing and usage has key differences. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans select feet for stews. Additionally:

  • Mexicans choose shoulder and butt cuts for tamales and the spine for soup “sopas.”

  • Puerto Ricans prefer pork chops for frying with onions and peppers.

  • Cubans like to make sandwiches from sliced ham and roasted pork.

    Other quick facts about Latino food shopping habits:

  • Goat meat is eaten more often (in Hispanic households).

  • “Freshness” is considered more nutritious than convenience foods; 70% prepare meals from scratch, and 75% prepare fresh foods.

  • Fish cooked in unsweetened coconut milk--distinctively different than the more commonly sold U.S. piña colada variety--is popular among Caribbean Hispanics.

  • Salsas, tortillas, fruit water “frescas,” ancho chili and chipotle spices are thriving in popularity because of their mainstream appeal. California production of Hispanic cheeses has doubled in the last 10 years to 80 million pounds.

  • Brand-name foods from native countries, such as Bimbo Bread, do well. In New York, small supermarket “bodegas”--frequented for foods not found elsewhere--are pursuing the creation of their own collective brands.

  • Acculturation influences the individual ethnic groups differently: As Puerto Ricans become more exposed to mainstream American foods, they tend to use more pre-packaged products, while Mexicans continue to prefer fresh.

    Presented by Lorena Drago, MS, RD, CDN, CDE, Hispanic/Latino Nutrition Educator at the American Dietetic Association 2005 Food & Nutrition Conference held in St. Louis in October.