How Hispanics Learn Unhealthy Eating in the U.S.

Jun 26, 2006

By Terry J. Soto, author of Marketing to Hispanics

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.

Moderator’s Comment: How can U.S. food manufacturers and retailers gain the loyalty of Hispanics and simultaneously help them improve their eating habits?

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!

Terry Soto – Moderator

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9 Comments on "How Hispanics Learn Unhealthy Eating in the U.S."

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Matt Werhner
Matt Werhner
14 years 8 months ago

This depends on how Hispanics define “healthy” foods. Also, manufacturers can try to send educational messages to Hispanic consumers about what constitutes healthy eating, but the messages currently sent are not really catching on with the public in general. Second and third generation Hispanics are and will experience the fast-paced lifestyle and greater exposure to quick and convenient meal solutions which are ingrained in American culture. This is a challenge that manufacturers, for the most part, have not had much success with. It’s hard to convince people to change their lifestyle and how they define “healthy” eating.

David Livingston
14 years 8 months ago

That is like asking how cigarette manufacturers can gain the loyalty of smokers while simultaneously helping them to quit smoking. It’s in the best interest of the food companies to give consumers what they want. It’s up to the consumer to decide what they need.

Karin Miller
Karin Miller
14 years 8 months ago

First of all, Americans in general are, on average, heavier than the rest of the world and, from every study I have read, heavier than our ancestors.

Second, I would bet that most immigrants arriving today from any developing country opt to eat unhealthier as soon as they gain the affluence and/or access to voluntarily exercise that right.

While there may be some marketing opportunities for food suppliers and retailers to offer healthier food options to specific cultures and educated them, it is not their obligation.

Healthy eating should be promoted by health professionals and educators and it is up to the individual to take responsibility.

Craig Sundstrom
14 years 8 months ago

I’m not sure I agree with Terry’s premise that “Hispanics arrive in this country with an inherent orientation towards healthy foods…” Are all Hispanics alike? Aren’t many/most foods unhealthy because they’re consumed in excess? And as Ms. Soto points out, many immigrants were (formerly) “healthy” simply because they couldn’t afford to be otherwise.

That having been said, however, I do think there is an issue here: how do we encourage – or is it force? – people, whatever their background, to adopt healthy eating habits? The emphasis here on retailers and manufacturers suggests an approach oriented to packaging and/or advertising; that would seem to bring up the issue of language barriers (unless multiple packagings/ad campaigns are developed): I think a more cost effective solution would involve the Hispanic media. Whether it’s producers/sellers who initiate that coverage depends on whether or not it’s profitable; and, as was pointed out with the tobacco example, if that message is mostly “consume less,” the odds are small.

Bernice Hurst
14 years 8 months ago

Accepting Terry’s premise that Hispanics are proud to start eating like Americans, it doesn’t make sense that a healthy eating message should be pointed directly at them. It should be pointed at everyone and Hispanics could/should recognise that they are part of the overall American audience being addressed. Surely this would then make them even prouder than if they were singled out.

Mark Lilien
14 years 8 months ago

Eating healthy isn’t an educational challenge. It’s a challenge to food manufacturers: come up with great tasting healthy meals for Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike. It’s hard for any food manufacturer to be a pioneer since it seems that all Americans (Hispanic or not) love 3 flavors: sugar, salt, and grease. I enjoyed Ben Ball’s comment proving fresh ingredients can be unhealthy. If fast food chains served the same items, only fresh, would anyone’s health be better off?

Ben Ball
14 years 8 months ago

While being a personal proponent of “scratch cooking” as well, I would offer that healthy eating involves more than just starting with fresh ingredients. I had lunch at my favorite Mexican family restaurant Saturday. I’ve been eating there for years and will vouch for the fresh food preparation, starting with the SuperMercado next door operated by the same family.

Lunch consisted of pork tamales covered in chili gravy and cheese. Seasoned rice with butter and full fat (I’m sure) frijoles. There was some shredded lettuce and tomato on the platter, but that’s where any semblance of “healthy” stopped by most current definitions.

So, are we making our immigrants de facto unhealthy? It seems there is still quite an element of personal decision and discipline in that question — for all of us!

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
14 years 8 months ago

Does a food manufacturer or a retailer gain loyalty by telling people what is healthy to eat and what language they should speak? Even when well intended, that effort can be a difficult road to drive to reach that place called Loyalty.

Richard Layman
14 years 8 months ago
It happens when I first came to DC I worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. If you look at public health research, most immigrants, certainly by the second to third generation, adopt U.S. eating mores. (This is discussed in greater detail in the book “Fast Food Guide” by Michael Jacobson and Sarah Fritschner.) And then their morbidity rates and susceptibility to health/behavior-related premature death related diseases runs at about the norms for the U.S. Did you ever watch “Cocina Crisco” in the late 1980s? Etc. cf. “Marketing Disease to Hispanics” published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in the late 1980s. I am no longer too involved in this aspect of the field, but you can imagine that stint at CSPI for four years has shaped my thinking about these issues. Since the USDA is pretty much controlled by industry and large agribusiness, and because USDA is primarily responsible for the communication of healthy eating behaviors (nutrition education), with every Republican administration this unit becomes increasingly less active… Read more »

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