Food Forum: The many flavors of Hispanic consumers

This growing demographic has a wide range of cooking styles and taste preferences.

By Joseph Pérez

Many years ago, the Hispanic community was relegated to homogenous grouping—one category, one supermarket aisle and a limit of one or two shelves of products serving one or two nationalities. Throughout the decades, the Latino population has grown, bringing with it a multitude of flavors and an increased awareness of various foods and their uses.

According to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, there are nearly 50 million Hispanics living in the U.S., hailing from 20 countries spanning the four Latin American regions: Mexico, Central America (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama), South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela) and the Caribbean (Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico). Augusto Ledesma, general manager of Goya Foods Dominican Republic, was once quoted as saying “Hispanics are united by language and divided by the bean.”

This statement is fairly accurate, as within these 20 countries combined there are more than 36 varieties of beans and dozens of preparation methods. In some countries, use and preparation can also vary by region. For example, in northern Mexico, pinto beans are popular, while black beans are more common in the south. In Puerto Rico, the northern region of the island cooks red kidney beans whereas in the south, pink beans are used more.

My colleague’s observation also resonates within other food categories. Corn, in all its forms and varieties, for example, is considered a staple in most countries and is used in many ways throughout Latin America. In Mexico, corn is converted to bread and is used to make tortillas. In northern South American countries such as Colombia or Venezuela, it is used to make arepas, a corn patty that is grilled, baked or fried. In El Salvador, corn is used to make pupusas a patty that is often filled with cheese or beans.

On the other hand, in Andean nations such as Ecuador, Peru, or Bolivia, corn is cooked whole as an addition to stews, or as appetizers or snacks. Peru also uses purple corn, indigenous to the Andes Mountain region, to make a popular and refreshing beverage known as chicha morada.

Additionally, a significant difference within Latin American countries can be seen in how the various cooking styles use heat. Peppers vary from country to country as do the recipes that include them. As a perfect example, the chili pepper is used liberally by some cultures and sparingly in others. Many Mexican and Central American home chefs use chili to generate a highly spicy flavor in their dishes or as a side dish, allowing each family member to choose quantity to achieve the desired intensity of heat. In Argentine and Uruguayan cuisine, the spice is unnoticeable and in the Andean countries it is used more as a flavor besides heat in certain sauces. Chili peppers are not intrinsic to the everyday meal among the Caribbean community such as Puerto Rico, Cuba and Dominican Republic, however, it can be used as a condiment or pique.

As the populations of second-, third- and fourth-generation Hispanics—who are often born in the U.S.—continue to grow, cooking preferences shift, although the demand for authenticity remains a constant. Clearly 21st century societal mores often dictate multiple incomes within a household, which leaves little time for the often long preparation process. This paradigm has helped expand the market opportunities for mixed condiments, frozen goods and packaged products.

In addition, some U.S. Latinos marry outside of their specific nationality blending, not only cultures, but also tastes. Though a large majority remains committed to conventional recipes, we find a growing interest in the combination of flavors often referred to as pan-Latino or Latin fusion.

Many restaurants throughout the country that have catered to the non-Hispanic “foodie” have enjoyed significant success in this genre as curiosity and a new-found appreciation of Latin American flavors has become trendy.

Although a large majority of the population remains committed to conventional recipes, we find a growing interest in the combination of flavors often referred to as pan-Latino or Latin fusion.

Each Latin American country offers a unique taste and delicate balance within their cooking styles. It is important for stores to become educated about which cultural influences are predominant within their neighborhood in order to meet the demands of that potential market. It will prove very helpful to partner with a provider that can assist in navigating the nuances of that group in order to successfully stock shelves with the appropriate product mix.

Joseph Pérez is senior vice president of Goya Foods, Inc., the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the U.S. Goya distributes more than 1,600 Latin American products throughout the United States and Europe. Visit www.goya.com for more information.

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