Food marketers who take note of the growing population of Hispanics in North America and their mounting influence on the culture are clearly doing their homework. However, if they are responding simply by dreaming up new dishes with a spicy kick, making tacos and burritos more convenient or coming out with products merely to slap the words “dulce de leche” on them, they might one day find themselves saying “the dog ate my homework.”

Growing in number and on track to accelerate as a percentage of the U.S. population in coming years, Hispanics are a distinct and worthy target market for food companies. But far from being a monolithic group that has one set of food tastes and food consumption behaviors, Hispanics are a multi-faceted grouping of peoples who hail from myriad nations, cultures and food traditions. Moreover, their food orientation, like that of other ethnic groups, also is a function of demographics, differing based on such variables as age, income level, family size and degree of acculturation.

Those differences and nuances are being highlighted in a growing number of in-depth studies of the Hispanic market aimed at marketers of many products, including food. In the last year, Technomic Inc. issued “Targeting the Hispanic Foodservice Customer—Keys to Success,” and Mintel Inc., unveiled “Hispanic Meals at Home,” among others.

Their message: food marketers will increasingly have to work to uncover the secrets to serving the needs and mirroring the habits of a culture anchored in many ways by food— from what is consumed to how it is prepared and how it is purchased. Whether they are focused on developing products unique to the home countries of Hispanic immigrants or simply bringing mainstream foods to those who call themselves Hispanic, successful marketers will need to understand the behaviors of consumers with exacting demands, intense loyalties and, in some cases, entrenched eating habits.

The Technomic study advises mainstream food marketers to better grasp the differences inherent in the many Hispanic subgroups, which can strongly affect food consumption patterns. “When we think Hispanic we think Mexican, but in fact the demographics are much broader than that—we’ve identified about 11 or so Hispanic subgroups,” says David Henkes, senior principal at Technomic. “The trick for food manufacturers and the foodservice industry is to avoid the trap of assuming that Hispanics are one big block of people, and instead to target them with foods and beverages and flavors that are appropriate.”

As the study notes, many food marketers are failing to key into differences relating to country of origin, acculturation levels, socioeconomic status and life stage. “These differences are not well understood by foodservice manufacturers and operators. As a consequence, many companies have had limited success in reaching this important market.”

A Market That Can't Be Ignored

That is certainly cause for concern, given the number of Hispanics entering cultures notably different from which they or their parents originated. Indeed, from a sheer numbers perspective, the Hispanic market is a tough one to ignore for any food company looking to plan ahead and target products and marketing efforts to fast-growing slices of the population.

According to the Technomic study, there are now some 40 million Hispanics in the U.S.; this comprises about 14% of the population. The Hispanic population is growing four times faster than the U.S. population, putting it on track to potentially account for 25% of the country’s total population by 2050.

The Mintel study sees a similar growth track. It predicts that between 2001 and 2011, the share of the U.S. population that is Hispanic is expected to increase from 13% to 15.7%.

Perhaps more important is the fact that the Hispanic population is skewing much younger than the rest of the U.S. population. The Technomic study noted that people under 18 comprise 34% of the Hispanic population, compared with 25% of the non-Hispanic population.

Acculturation: The Key

A central consideration in understanding Hispanics’ food consumption behavior and catering to their needs is the impact of the level of acculturation. It is generally believed that recent Hispanic immigrants are more likely to cling to the foods and eating traditions of their home countries or regions. The longer they are in the new environment—as they acculturate—the more likely they will be to adopt more mainstream food consumption behaviors.

“The effect of acculturation on the types of foods Hispanics eat is pronounced—it is perhaps the most important demographic to consider when assessing the Hispanic consumer,” notes the Mintel study.

Technomic’s assessment is that acculturation levels are such that food marketers may be facing an uphill battle by attempting to pull many Hispanics away from their native foods and eating habits toward mainstream foods. While some 40% of U.S. Hispanics are likely fully acculturated (defined as those born in the U.S. to parents who are U.S. citizens), some 60% are not. Of that 60%, 13% are unacculturated (a group consisting of those who were born outside the country and have lived less than half their lives in the U.S.). But the biggest block (47%) are semi-acculturated, meaning that while they were born outside the country, they have spent more than half their lives within its borders.

Acculturation poses a dilemma and a challenge for a growing number of Hispanics, says Ricardo Lopez, president of Hispanic Research Inc., a marketing research firm. A reluctance to blend into the larger mainstream society is often expressed at least partly through food choices and eating habits.

“Early immigrants to the U.S. forced their children to speak English, but now that’s changed—now, it’s work to keep your culture,” he says. “Hispanics come into this country and they struggle with losing it. One way they may seek to retain it is to put an emphasis on the foods of their culture.”

Food Marketers' Dilemma

That begs the question: Should mainstream food marketers promote authentic dishes to meet this desire?

The answer is not an easy one because creating successful authentic dishes is a difficult task. Researching, developing and marketing genuinely Hispanic foods to the various subsets of Hispanic immigrants who favor their own cultural foods is likely a time-consuming effort with no guarantee of a payoff. Many unacculturated or semi-acculturated Hispanics seek out and often find authentic products and brands marketed through specialty grocery stores or online.

On the other hand, a Hispanic population consisting of a larger percentage of young people and large families that treasure food and eating—a market that makes food makers salivate—is clearly growing. Ignoring that group and waiting for it to acculturate to meat loaf and fried chicken probably is not in the genes of most aggressive, growth-oriented food companies.

As Lopez notes, any culture in which food is so central cannot be ignored. “Food is very much a part of the Hispanic/Latino culture, and in a sense it defines them; you can’t not talk about the food when you talk about the culture,” he says.

Marcela Berland, founder and president of LatinInsights, a Latino market research firm, says one of the challenges marketers face in developing culturally accurate Hispanic foods is that there is little room for error. “Hispanics will try products and know immediately whether or not they’re authentic,” she says. “They’re hard to trick.”

As acculturation progresses and Hispanics begin spreading their food wings, it may make increasing sense for food marketers to target that market more precisely with prepared foods that speak their language. In addition, as the influence of Hispanics on the culture grows and non-Hispanics look to experiment with a broader range of non-traditional, culturally specific Hispanic foods, a move deeper into Hispanic “cuisines” may be warranted. At the very least, it may make sense to tailor the design, packaging and marketing of mainstream foods or those that have some Hispanic elements to appeal to Hispanic consumers, from the unacculturated to the fully acculturated. Taking Hispanic food design beyond traditional Mexican foods requires an appreciation of the fundamental differences that mark each group’s food traditions.

Hispanics Are Not Monolithic

Critical to understanding the Hispanic market and its food preferences is knowing its diverse makeup. Loosely defined as persons from Spanish-speaking regions of the Western Hemisphere—from Mexico to Puerto Rico, Cuba and other Caribbean countries along with the various nations that make up Central America and parts of South America—Hispanics comprise multiple races, ethnicities and nationalities. Customs, mores and traditions that affect what and how people eat differ greatly from group to group.

While there is some overlap in food preferences among Hispanic subgroups, the points of difference are sufficient enough to warn food marketers away from a one-size-fits-all approach to serving the Hispanic market. It is also notable that “hot and spicy” is hardly a characteristic common to all Hispanic foods. “The Hispanic subgroups differ in the food staples they eat, the seasonings and ingredients they use and the ways in which they prepare their food,” the Technomic study notes.

In a broad overview of food preferences for four broad Hispanic subgroups, Technomic’s study flags notable differences. Mexican foods, for instance, are often flavored with tomato sauces and rich chili pastes. South American foods, though, lean heavily on green peppers, tomatoes, onions, coriander and annato, while Central American dishes use tomatoes and onions, but use chiles sparingly. Caribbean foods are often built around root vegetables like yucca, malanga, yams, okra and black-eyed peas, while raisins, olives, red pimentos, hard-boiled eggs and chocolate are common in Central American dishes.

Differences can even be as subtle as preferences for the beans used in soups, a popular dish. The Technomic study plots favored beans for Cubans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. To the exclusion of all other types, Mexican foods employ pinto beans in soups. Cubans like the garbanzo, black, red kidney and lentil; Puerto Ricans favor the habichuela and lima.

“You have to understand their special food interests and preferences, and that can come down to knowing whether you should be selling them something as basic as either rice or tortillas,” says Susan Mitchell, senior research analyst for Mintel. “And if it’s tortillas, if they’re not just like the ones they’re familiar with they might not want them.”

Eating Habits Key

Successfully targeting the less acculturated Hispanic market requires more than just figuring out the food itself. It also requires an understanding of how different groups eat and how they purchase and prepare food.

The Mintel study concludes that many Hispanics approach food in many non-traditional, less-than-mainstream ways. The less acculturated, in particular, like to cook meals from scratch and, in turn, favor fresh foods. But among the young and more acculturated, interest is growing in calorie-dense, fast prepared and frozen foods largely because of time and disposable income pressures, which can weigh inordinately heavily on many Hispanics.

The study also revealed that Hispanics have a lower than average interest in trying new foods and recipes, preferring instead to stick with foods they know. Children, while present in half of Hispanic households compared with 30% of non-Hispanic households, do not exert inordinate influence on family food choices. Also, a sizable number of Hispanics—one-third possibly—rate lunch the most important meal of the day, compared to just 15% of non-Hispanics.

Mainstreaming Hispanic Foods

While Hispanics constitute a large and growing bloc of consumers, they are certainly not the only ones interested in authentic Hispanic foods. “A variety of Latino foods are crossing from one Latino group to another and more are going mainstream, as well,” Lopez states. “We’re already seeing it with the ascent of fruits like mango, papaya and guava, which weren’t anywhere to be found in the U.S. 20 years ago.”

But attempts to mainstream many authentic Hispanic foods could well fall flat, especially in the retail prepared foods environment. While some products are catching on, many probably do not contain the seeds of mass appeal. What may happen is hybridization, or the creation of new products from a collection of different Hispanic and “American” food traditions.

“There are ways of taking authentic products that might be perceived as ‘niche’ and marketing them across different population segments,” says Mintel’s Mitchell. “But not everything is going to translate.”

In the same vein, food marketers would do well to remember that the same applies to attempts to market foods to unacculturated Hispanics, whose numbers are likely to grow. Many simply will not warm to appeals of mainstream food companies. “They’re not going to make tacos using a ‘kit’,” Mitchell observes.

New Product Nuances

“Hispanic culture revolves around food,” says Ricardo Lopez, president, Hispanic Research Inc. Lopez points out that this attitude affects everyone in the food industry and is changing the way America eats. “Latinos come from some 20 different countries, each with a unique food heritage. In addition, Hispanics demand new prepared foods to go with their new American lifestyle.” This year at Prepared Foods’ 25th New Products Conference, October 14-17th, Naples Grand Resort, Naples, Fla., Lopez will present “Understanding La Comida Latina,” where he will examine Hispanic food attitudes and Latino food needs. For more information, contact Marge Whalen atwhalenm@bnpmedia.comor 630-694-4347.

Country of Origin Food Preference Profile


  • Dishes are often flavored with tomato sauces and rich chili pastes.

  • Seafood, poultry and pork are commonly consumed.

  • Thin-cut meats are preferred for cooking purposes.

  • Stews, molés and braised meats and poultry are common.

  • Corn, maize and beans are staples.

  • Cinnamon, clove, cilantro, thyme, marjoram and epazote are regularly used spices.

    Central America

  • Tomatoes and onions are used to flavor food; chiles used sparingly.

  • Pork, chicken and beef are used in stews or are grilled or roasted.

  • Raisins, olives, red pimentos, hard-boiled eggs and chocolate are often-used ingredients.

  • Rice, beans and corn are staples.

    South America

  • Annatto, coriander, onions, tomatoes and green peppers provide

    flavoring to most dishes.

  • Seafood, poultry and pork are preferred.

  • Potatoes, corn and rice are staples.


  • Seafood, pork and poultry are dominant: roasted, grilled or fried.

  • Garlic, coconut milk and adobos provide flavoring.

  • Preferred root vegetables include yucca, malanga and yams.

  • Okra, black-eyed peas and pigeon peas are common. Flavoring greens (collards, spinach, turnips, etc.) with smoked meats is popular.

    Source: Technomic Inc., “Grow in America Chain Store Guide: Top 50 Hispanic Markets Report 2005”; “Targeting the Hispanic Foodservice Consumer: Keys to Future Success,” January 2006

    Acculturation Defined

    Unacculturated: Born outside of U.S. and have spent less than half of their life in U.S.; 13% of U.S. Hispanics.

    Semi-acculturated: Born outside of U.S. but have spent half or more of their life in U.S., or born in U.S. to immigrant parents; 47% of U.S. Hispanics.

    Acculturated: Born in U.S. to parents who were born in U.S.; 40% of U.S. Hispanics.

    Source: Technomic Inc., “Targeting the Hispanic Foodservice Consumer: Keys to Future Success,” January 2006