How Hispanics Learn Unhealthy Eating in the U.S.

By Terry J. Soto, President of About Marketing Solutions, Inc.

Terry J. Soto is author of Marketing to Hispanics: A Strategic Approach to Assessing and Planning your Initiative and Grow with America Best Practices in Ethnic Marketing and Merchandising.

On the heels of the recent RetailWire discussion concerning the appeal of beef among Hispanics (see Hispanics and Beef: Economics or Ethnics? – RetailWire 6/16/06), I thought it important to share some insights from a recent article I wrote for the May issue of the Shelby Report regarding the impact of culture and acculturation on eating and wellness.

To begin, one could argue that Hispanics arrive in this country with an inherent orientation towards healthy foods and that, indeed, greater exposure to packaged and fast foods lead their food choices to, at least initially, deteriorate. After all, in spite of higher beef, dairy and carbohydrate-skewed diets, immigrants arrive in this country with habits of eating fresh foods: vegetables, fruit, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), nuts and grains (rice, barley, oats, and quinoa). Scratch cooking is the norm.

Why do Hispanics use fewer packaged foods in their meal preparation? It’s actually more convenient to cook what and how they’re used to; it satisfies emotional/nostalgic needs for traditional tastes; and fresh food preparation is generally more economical.

Another significant consideration is Hispanics’ definition of healthy and what constitutes a healthy person – many associate plumpness and even being overweight with health and affluence.

Socio-economic positions in countries of origin often limit access to food items such as whole milk, eggs and, depending on the country and region, seafood, red meat, chicken and other meat products. Additionally, colonization, along other regional influences, has resulted in Latin American diets that have been protein deficient, and carbohydrate and produce dependent for centuries.

When Hispanics arrive in the U.S., regardless of their income level, a whole world of food possibilities opens up. Suddenly, they can afford to buy all those things they couldn’t afford back home, and they thrive on it. They feel privileged and, subconsciously, they define higher consumption of these foods as “healthy” because of their image of the “well-to-do and well-fed” person in their home countries.

As they and their children put on a bit of weight, they see this as a highly positive consequence. From dozens of focus groups, Hispanics are adamant that whole milk, lots of eggs, and red meat, pork and organ meats are good for them because they are whole, creamier, and have the fat they consider healthful.

Additionally, Hispanics have a huge sweet tooth, so it is uncommon and almost surprising to find low-sugar anything in local restaurants and food stands in Latin America. Consequently, habit and preference for sweets transfer to high sugar consumption in the U.S.

And the effects are alarming. Clinical studies have consistently reported a high prevalence of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, dental cavities, and over/under nutrition in the Hispanic population. Approximately 10 to 12 percent of Hispanic-American adults have diabetes.

Research also indicates that Hispanics in the United States eat more meat and saturated fats than Anglos, and use fewer low-fat dairy products. Hispanics are actually less aware of and unable to recognize or acknowledge higher fat contents in foods.

In the past several years, health agencies have made fairly aggressive efforts to educate Hispanics on their health predispositions and the impact of their food choices. This has created some change in food choice behavior, but there is some way to go.

Over time, harried lifestyles, working moms, increased exposure to package foods advertising, a greater orientation to convenience and increased affluence, drive significant changes in the Hispanic diet. The challenge for U.S. companies and retailers focused on better-for-you and natural/organic foods will be one of education.

Hispanics need to be educated on the impact of their food choices in a way that reinforces the healthy food behavior they bring from their countries of origin while at the same time calling attention to less healthy food behavior so they gain a greater appreciation and acceptance of healthier, low-fat and low sugar alternatives.

An even greater challenge for food manufacturers moving forward will be creating delivering healthier versions of healthy foods that also satisfy the desire for traditional flavors. That’s a food segment with enormous potential!