Many foods and beverages of Hispanic origin have become part of our well-known “American” cuisine: mojitos, margaritas, dulce de leche ice cream, fajitas, flan, burritos, nachos, salsa, tequila, chili, guacamole, tacos, tortillas and pina coladas. In fact, these products are no longer labeled as “ethnic” by many, but rather are considered a mainstream food choice. Salsa now outsells ketchup in the U.S. (AC Nielsen), and tortillas now outsell white bread (Tortilla Industry Association).
Given these examples, why is it the right time for food manufacturers to make a concerted effort to address the needs of Hispanics and those liking Hispanic foods?
Sheer number is a good reason. The population of Hispanics in the U.S. will continue to increase tremendously, and, with their increased presence, more and more Americans will be exposed to Hispanic cuisine. According to the U.S. census, the Hispanic population of the U.S., as of July 2008, was 46.9 million, making Latinos the nation’s largest ethnic minority, at over 15% of the population. Juan Tornoe, owner of Hispanic Trending, puts these numbers into an interesting perspective: “There are more Latinos in America than Canadians in Canada!”
Future Hispanic population growth will also be strong, driven by immigration and high birth rates. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, the Hispanic population of the U.S. will be over 100 million, or 24.4% of the American population (www.census.gov).
In addition to the high usage of Hispanic products by Hispanics themselves, there is the “rub-off” factor for non-Hispanic Americans. Neighbors, friends, teachers, restaurants, travel, cooking shows and stores are exposing more Americans to Latino ingredients and foods. This, too, will be a captive audience for food manufacturers who explore Hispanic flavors, ingredients and favored products--and incorporate them into their product development efforts.
Amongst Latinos, the tradition in the past was to eat large, freshly prepared, home-cooked meals every day. Foods were made from traditional recipes that were time-consuming and hard to prepare, according to foodbycountry.com. As more women entered the work force, there was less time to cook some of these traditional foods. Also, Latinos, like other Americans, eat out more than they used to do. Some even gather in restaurants for the big family dinner on Sunday. There is now a more open attitude about purchasing partially or fully prepared products for mealtime.
Each Latino ethnic group has its own food customs and traditions. Cubans consider many foods symbolic. For example, sweet foods symbolize happiness. Fruits are often the main part of a Cuban meal. Puerto Ricans are known for their love of fancy meals. Many Puerto Ricans still serve a wide variety of dishes at two of their meals every day.
Hispanic cuisine varies from region to region, from town to town, and from family to family. Although there are foods that are enjoyed by many Hispanic families, regional variations in heat, spiciness, pungency and sweetness make it difficult to define what “authentic” Hispanic cuisine is. For example, sofrito, the cooking sauce used to flavor beans, rice, fish and stews, can vary in flavor, depending on the region. The Spanish sofrito is sweet and made with tomatoes, while the Puerto Rican sofrito is pungent and made with cilantro; the Cuban version is mild and made with parsley, as noted by the USDA at www.nal.usda.gov/outreach/HFood.html.
Certain Hispanic groups prefer certain types of foods. Mexicans favor corn and amaranth. South Americans favor wheat, quinoa and potatoes. Rice is preferred by Hispanics from the Caribbean and coastal regions of Latin America.
Different Hispanic cultures prefer different beans. Cubans, southern Mexicans, Central Americans and Venezuelans use black beans in their cooking. Northern Mexicans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans use pinto or pinta beans. Cubans, central South Americans and Hispanic Caribbeans use red kidney beans. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans also use pigeon peas. Chick peas, or garbanzo beans, are popular with Venezuelans and Brazilians.
Not all Hispanic foods are hot. Cooks from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic use more oregano, tomato, garlic and black pepper than chilies to flavor dishes. If chilies are used, they tend to be the mild varieties.
Food preparation techniques of the Hispanic regions vary, also. Tortillas are prepared differently in various Spanish-American cultures. For example, some Mexican cooks put the corn through a lime bath to prepare masa harina. Venezuelans pre-cook the corn through a special process to yield harina pan, giving the tortilla a different texture. In areas of Mexico where more wheat than corn is cultivated, cooks prepare flour tortillas.
Although Latin Americans belong to a number of different cultures, their cooking styles have certain things in common, as explained by foodbycountry.com. Meat, usually pork or beef, is central to the Latino diet. In Hispanic cultures preferring spicy-hot food, it is eaten with the spicy sauces (salsas) for which Latinos are famous. One of the main ingredients in salsa, as well as many other Latin dishes, is hot chili peppers. Latinos cook with fresh, dried and ground chilies. There are many different kinds of chilies, including habanero, jalapeno, malagueta and poblano.
Corn, beans, rice and root vegetables are staples of the Latino diet. Some of the root vegetables commonly used in Latino cooking are sweet potatoes, yams, yucca, jicama, Jerusalem artichokes and taro.
Most Latino desserts (like flan, a type of custard) are made from dairy products. Many traditional Latino drinks contain two of the following three ingredients: milk, rum and fruit.
Ricardo Lopez, president of Hispanic Research Inc., notes Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. are borrowing liberally from each other’s cultures, in effect blurring the traditional regional demarcations.
South of the Border Innovation
There are several ingredients that are commonly found in Latino products. Most often, they impart a unique flavor/color/scent and/or can be credited with contributing health benefits.
Epazote is an herb that Julia Child credited with minimizing the “rooty-toot-toot” problem associated with eating beans. Its frequent addition to beans may well be due to its anti-flatulent properties, but certainly also for its unique flavor. Epazote also is commonly used in quesadillas, soups, salads and meat dishes. Mole verde, a Mexican herb sauce, incorporates the use of this strong-tasting herb; other names for this herb include West Indian goosefoot, Jerusalem oak, lamb’s quarters, pigweed, Mexican tea, hedge mustard, wormseed and, finally, due to its somewhat unpleasant odor, stinkweed. Culinary experts believe epazote has a distinct flavor; if not available, they recommend leaving it out rather than substituting other herbs. The herb is an acquired taste; once enjoyed, it is appreciated and missed when not included in a recipe.
Annatto, or achiote, is used to produce a red food coloring and also has a distinct flavor. Its scent is described as “slightly peppery, with a hint of nutmeg,” and its flavor as “slightly sweet and peppery.” Annatto is a shrub native to the Caribbean, South and Central Americas. Many Latin American cuisines traditionally use annatto in recipes of Spanish origin that originally called for saffron (for example, in arroz con pollo [chicken with rice], to color the rice yellow); it has been called “poor man’s saffron,” as the color is similar to the more prized, more expensive seasoning. Annatto is a natural colorant; products containing annatto may be labeled as “all natural” or “containing no artificial colors.”
Tomatillos, referred to as green tomato (tomate verde in Spanish) in Mexico, are a staple in Mexican cuisine. The tomatillo is a variety of tomato and is in the same family. According to the department of horticulture at Purdue University, the tomatillo has been a constant component of the Mexican and Guatemalan diet up to the present day, chiefly in the form of sauces prepared with its fruit and ground chilies to improve the flavor of meals and stimulate the appetite. The tomatillo is also used in sauces with green chili, mainly to lessen its hot flavor. The fruit of the tomatillo is used cooked, or even raw, to prepare purees or minced meat dishes used as a base for chili sauces known generically as salsa verde (green sauce). They can be used to accompany prepared dishes or else be used as ingredients in various stews. An infusion of the husks (calyces) is added to tamale dough to improve its spongy consistency, as well as to that of fritters: it is also used to impart flavor to white rice and to tenderize red meats. Tomatillos are highly anti-inflammatory and contain good amounts of vitamins A and C.
Tamarind is sold in various snack forms: dried and salted; or candied (for example, pulparindo or chamoy snacks). The famous agua fresca beverage, iced fruit-bars and raspados all use it as the main ingredient. In the U.S., Mexican immigrants have fashioned the agua de tamarindo drink and many other treats. Tamarind snacks, such as Mexico’s Pelon Pelo Rico, are available in specialty food stores worldwide in pod form or as a paste or concentrate. Tamarind is believed to aid in digestion. In animal studies, tamarind has been found to lower serum cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Healthy Hispanic Eating
According to Mintel’s “Hispanic Diet and Wellness” (U.S., November 2009), being overweight is a way of life and is generally accepted in Hispanic cultures. In Latin America, a plump child is a sign of a healthy child, but these good intentions carry over into adulthood. In an effort to experience all that the U.S. has to offer, new immigrants quickly gravitate towards excessive food offerings, including inexpensive fast food and sugary drinks, which not only create a warped sense of a normal diet, but also lead to unhealthy children and adults.
In affluent Hispanic households, the issue of making the wrong choices is not a lack of education, but simply one of pride in having access to more and not being deprived of eating anything, even if it is unhealthy.
However, as the population (Hispanic as well as non-Hispanic) ages, health concerns are likely to come to the forefront for Hispanic foods--as they have for many other foods.
Diabetes and heart health are of major concern to the population as a whole, but particularly for the Hispanic population. The challenge for food manufacturers will be to continue to innovate along the lines of not only flavor, but health as well. The question to answer will be, “Is there a healthy, yet flavorful, twist which can be formulated for this product?” For example, is there a way to make rice and tortillas healthier? Can whole grains be offered with a lower glycemic index? Long-term success for product developers will come from addressing not only the current, but also anticipating the future demands of the growing Hispanic food market. pf
For more information on Hispanics and their foods, enter the words “Hispanic,” “Latino,” “Hispanic foods,” “Latin America,” “salsa” or “Mexican” into the search field at PreparedFoods.com.