It is a well-known fact that immigrants to the United States tend to adapt to our eating habits rather quickly, which is not always to their advantage from a health perspective. But it is also true that our established food preferences are being continuously transformed and expanded due to new influences from around the world.
Of course, America has always been a hodgepodge of different cultures and ethnicities. That makes us the rich and vibrant society we are. However, that hasn’t always fully translated into our culinary achievements. But times are changing.
From 2010 to 2012, sales in ethnic foods rose by 4.5 percent, or nearly $9 billion, according to the Mintel Group, an international market research firm. It predicts additional growth of more than 20 percent over the next five years.
“While the effect of changing demographics has been seen in voting patterns and employment trends, the growing influence on America’s palate of the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia has been more subtle,” writes Stephanie Strom of the New York Times. “But as the buying power of Latino and Asian consumers expands, fruit flavors, hotter spices, different textures and grains, and even packaging innovations are becoming essential for big food manufacturers trying to appeal to diverse appetites.”
Even Campbell’s, America’s soup maker, has a new product line called “Go Soup” , offering spicy Moroccan-style chicken, spicy Chorizo, Shiitake mushrooms, and more.
And it’s not just the demographic changes in ethnicity that food manufacturers are aware of. They also want to appeal to younger customers who have grown up in a culturally diverse environment. Also, today’s consumers have a much better educated palate than their parents and grandparents and take it for granted to have access to all kinds of foods from around the world without having to go far.
Time is of the essence as well. People snack more or grab a bite on the run. Sushi or tacos fit the need for speed much better than a sit-down meal involving several courses.
More and more Americans are getting bored with the bland diets and dining experiences of past generations, according to surveys conducted by the Hartman Group, a consumer research institute. This is in part because of greater exposure to foreign countries through travel, multicultural neighborhoods, and also popular TV shows on the Travel Channel and Food Network.
The trend clearly goes from the “typically bland mouth feel of traditional American foods, which center on salty, sweet or fatty richness, toward spicy notes and aromas of a wide range of different foods and beverages – a significant part of which includes those from other cultures,” their report concludes.
In addition to taste, there is also a heightened sense of the importance of dietary wellness. Many ethnic foods are considered to be healthier, including by experts, because of their ingredient choices and cooking techniques. Just advising people to eat more fruits and vegetables will not suffice if they don’t know how these can be incorporated into a diet that is healthful but also appealing in taste and presentation. Many ethnic foods offer these advantages in spades.
Race, ethnicity and ancestry are complex topics and come with a lot of baggage, and so does food, says Hanna Kang-Brown (http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/07/04/198424045/a-bbq-rub-that-tastes-like-brooklyn), a writer who grew up in Los Angeles in a Korean-American neighborhood. Eating is our most interactive activity, she says, involving all our senses and linking us back to our memories. It taps into our gut reactions and lets us experience our identity and place with ease and pleasure – something we all can benefit from.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD), on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD), Google+ (https://plus.google.com/108336836895800890850/posts) and on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/timigustafson/)