October 18, 2013 in Business

Changing demographics affect American palates

Suzette Laboy And J.M. Hirsch Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Tortillas and other items are seen in the International food aisle of a grocery store Wednesday in Washington.
(Full-size photo)

Rolling up the sales

Tortilla dollar sales increased at a faster pace in supermarket sales than potato chips this year (3.7 percent vs. 2.2 percent), according to InfoScan Reviews, a retail tracking service.

MIAMI – Salsa overtaking ketchup as America’s No. 1 condiment was just the start.

These days, tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns; sales of tortilla chips trump potato chips; and tacos and burritos have become so ubiquitously “American,” most people don’t even consider them ethnic.

Welcome to the taste of American food in 2013.

As immigrant and minority populations rewrite American demographics, the nation’s collective menu is reflecting this flux, as it always has. And it goes beyond the mainstreaming of once-esoteric ethnic ingredients, something we’ve seen with everything from soy sauce to jalapenos.

This is a rewrite of the American menu at the macro level, an evolution of whole patterns of how people eat. The difference this time? The biggest culinary voting bloc is Hispanic.

“When you think about pizza and spaghetti, it’s the same thing,” said Jim Kabbani, CEO of the Tortilla Industry Association. “People consider them American, not ethnic. It’s the same with tortillas.”

With Hispanics making up more than a quarter of the U.S. population today – and growing fast – experts say this change is dramatically flavoring the American culinary experience. Hispanic foods and beverages were an $8 billion market in the last year, according to consumer research firm Packaged Facts. By 2017, that number may reach $11 billion.

And that’s influencing how all Americans eat. Doritos, after all, are just tarted-up tortilla chips.

As the entire menu of the American diet gets rewritten, the taste is getting spicier.

From queso fresco to chorizo, traditional Hispanic foods – or even just the flavors of them – are making their way into our everyday diet, particularly among the millennials – those born between the early ’80s and the turn of the century. Generation Y’s Hispanic community was born into an American culture but still holds on to its traditions, often eating white rice and seamlessly switching between English and Spanish.

“They are looking for products that are not necessarily big brands anymore,” said Michael Bellas, chairman of the Beverage Marketing Corp. “They like brands that have character. They are looking for authenticity and purity, but they are also looking for new experiences.”

For example, popular among the millennials and other generations on the West Coast is the Mexican soda Jarritos, which boasts real fruit flavors ranging from mango to guava. The company’s site showcases a collage of photos taken by Generation Y soda drinkers. Brightly colored sodas pop through their clear vintage-looking bottles. And the bottle caps share a simple message: “Que buenos son,” or “They’re so good.”

Another Hispanic beverage making ever more rounds in households across America is tequila.

In 2006, nearly 107 million liters of tequila were exported to the U.S., a 23 percent increase over 2005, according to Judith Meza, representative of the Tequila Regulatory Council. Tequila entered the top 10 of liquors in the world five years ago, she said.

The influence goes deeper than the numbers. Like Italian food before it, Hispanic food enjoys broad adoption because it is easy for Americans to cook at home. Few Americans will roll their own sushi, but plenty are happy to slap together a quesadilla. Hispanic ingredients also are more common than those of Indian or other Asian cuisines. Ditto for the equipment. While nearly every American home has a skillet for sauteing (a common cooking method in Hispanic cuisines), only 28 percent of homes have a wok, according to NPD.

Tortilla dollar sales increased at a faster pace in supermarket sales than potato chips this year (3.7 percent vs. 2.2 percent over a 52-week period), according to InfoScan Reviews, a retail tracking service.

The Tortilla Industry Association estimates that Americans consumed approximately 85 billion tortillas in 2000. And that’s just tortillas. It doesn’t include chips.

“Having been raised on Wonder bread,” Kabbani, the group’s CEO, reminisced of his childhood days, “I didn’t think that this could displace the sliced bread that was such an item of the American kitchen.” But parents are picking healthier options to wrap their child’s lunch every day, he said.

“When it comes to health, the Mexican cuisines cater better to that with salsas and vegetables,” said Alexandra Aguirre Rodriguez, an assistant professor of marketing at Florida International University.

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