As U.S. Demographics Change, so Does the Menu
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," says 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, with salsa and chipotle popping into the mainstream vernacular. And onto your dinner table: Marie Callender's has grilled shrimp street tacos with chipotle ranch dressing; Whataburger has a fire-roasted blend of poblano peppers in its chicken fajita taco; and there's tomatillo verde salsa in the baja shrimp stuffed quesadilla from El Pollo Loco.
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 onto 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," says Michael Bellas, chairman of the Beverage Marketing Corporation. "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 of 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.
Even our choice of side dishes is feeling the influence. In general, Americans are eating fewer of them. Except white rice, a staple of Hispanic cuisines, says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst for The NPD Group, a consumer marketing organization.
Americans ate rice on its own as a side dish (not counting as an ingredient in another dish) an average of 24 times in 2013, up from 20 servings in 2003, according to NPD's National Eating Trend.
Why has rice resisted the death of the side dish? It's one of the traditions millennial Hispanics have held onto, says Seifer.
And that's just the start. Rice also was the top-rated side dish in a National Restaurant Association chefs survey of what's hot. The same survey also found chefs touting taquitos as appetizers; ethnic-inspired breakfast items such as chorizo scrambled eggs; exotic fruits including guava; queso fresco as an ingredient; and Peruvian cuisine.
Influences Deeper Than the Numbers
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.
All of this has meant a near complete loss of ethnicity for many Hispanic foods. Americans now more closely associate tacos, tortilla chips and burritos with fast food than with Hispanic culture.
"The Hispanic market isn’t the only one driving that taste profile," says Tom Dempsey, CEO of the Snack Food Association. "As manufacturers become more innovative on how to use tortilla chips, that will continue to take a larger share of the snack marketplace."
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.
Though potato chips continue to be the top-selling salted snack in terms of pounds sold, "the growth of tortilla chips is a little bit more robust than the growth of potato chips," Dempsey says. "And both tortilla chips and potato chips are reflecting greater influence from the Hispanic taste profile than in previous years."
Which is to say, even all-American potato chips are increasingly being flavored with traditionally Hispanic ingredients. Care for Lay’s "Chile Limon" chips? How about some "Queso Flavored" Ruffles? Maybe some Pringles Jalapeno? And of course there’s the old standard - Nacho Cheese Doritos.
As testament to their popularity, the Tortilla Industry Association estimates that Americans consumed approximately 85 billion tortillas in 2000. And that’s just tortillas straight up. 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," says Alexandra Aguirre Rodriguez, an assistant professor of marketing at Florida International University.
A healthier option many Americans are choosing is the tomato-based salsa, which beat ketchup sales 2-1, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
This isn’t simply a matter of Hispanics buying more of their traditional foods.
At the grocer, Hispanic ingredients have moved well beyond the international aisle, sometimes commandeering entire aisles of their own or, increasingly, mingling freely with the rest of the products. Tortillas and taco kits outsell hamburgers and hot dog buns, according to the latest edition of Hispanic Foods and Beverages in the U.S.
Packaged food is also playing a major role.
"If I would look at 10 shopping carts, about half would have taco shells, the Americanized components to make enchiladas or tacos, or frozen chimichangas," says Terry Soto, president and CEO of About Marketing Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in the Hispanic market. There are more non-Hispanics buying those types of foods, she says.
"There is a larger segment of the population that wants the real thing. It’s not so much the products becoming mainstream. It’s about ethnic food becoming that much more of what we eat on a day-to-day basis."