C-stores that make an effort to understand the health issues, diet dynamics and cultural considerations of Hispanic consumers can develop healthier retail relationships in the community.
By Sylvia Meléndez Klinger, Contributing Editor
As a registered dietitian who has practiced for 30 years, working with health issues that affect the Hispanic/Latino population in the U.S., I can confidently say that we can all benefit from learning the dietary patterns of Hispanics.
Just as the importance of diet in the crusade to prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and other obesity related diseases among Hispanics is a reality, it’s critical for convenience stores to understand how diet influences Hispanic purchasing preferences. Such understanding can go far in cultivating a strong retail relationship with Hispanic patrons.
Prior to the 1970s, little food, cultural, behavioral and health research addressed the Hispanics in America and the socio-demographic factors affecting their health. Three decades later, as a result of dramatic growth in the Hispanic population, there is a surge of interest in Hispanics and their health, but there is still limited information about Hispanics’ food/culture and health-related behaviors.
Since ethnic factors strongly influence a person’s overall behavior, all who work with Hispanics should understand the culinary and social aspects of the different Hispanic cultures they serve.
A DIVERSE POPULATION
The Hispanic population in the U.S. represents a diverse array of ancestry, culture, socio-economic conditions and needs. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau population estimate, there are roughly 50.5 million Hispanics living in the U.S., which represents 16% of the total U.S. population.
Among these Hispanic subgroups, Mexicans rank as the largest at 63%. Following Mexicans are: Central and South Americans (13%), Puerto Ricans (9.2%), Cubans (3.5%). It’s important to note that Hispanics are a heterogeneous group, despite the fact that they speak the same language and share a number of cultural commonalities.
The diet of Hispanics acculturated in the U.S. is influenced by the traditional eating patterns of their home countries, as well as by the dietary practices of the adopted communities in which they live.
Family life has traditionally occupied a central place in Hispanic culture, and this has influenced dietary behaviors through home preparation of meals and the practice of families eating together. These are strong healthy eating behaviors that can be reinforced and supported within the Hispanic community through your convenience store.
According to a study by the National Center for Health Statistics, one in three Latino adults are obese, and more than two-thirds of Latino men and women are overweight. The same study showed that Latino adults have one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes, a severe consequence of obesity. In fact, a Hispanic adult is 50% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than a non-Hispanic adult.
Hispanic diets are associated with the consumption of high-calorie foods, while the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain products, and low-fat dairy and protein are low in their daily diets.
It’s important to understand that any recommendations crafted for Hispanics must have a cultural competence approach or Hispanic consumers will not be motivated to follow them. Hispanics need to consider small portions and nutrient dense foods every day, and that means recommending foods that are inexpensive, easily available and appealing to different ethnic backgrounds in order to be included in everyday meals.
So as c-store operators consider their foodservice planning, they may want to think about providing foods that are dense in nutrients. Given that obesity and type 2 diabetes are so prevalent among Hispanics, it is critical to focus on nutrient dense foods to provide high levels of nutrients, like potassium, fiber, calcium and Vitamin D, per calorie. In particular, foods with high levels of dietary fiber can help moderate blood glucose and promote weight loss.
Traditional Hispanic foods, like dried beans, guava, mangos and avocados, are rich in fiber and can be included in food offerings as well.
Nutrients that are often found lacking in Hispanic diets can also be incorporated into daily meals with simple modifications of recipes. For example, a licuado (a popular breakfast beverage) made with one cup of yogurt and strawberries can deliver three needed nutrients. Foods that are low fat and nutrient dense, like whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy can be easily added to classic Hispanic recipes like enchiladas and soups.
A recent study demonstrated that people who eat yogurt have been found to have better diet quality and fewer health risks. Yogurt is nutrient dense, ready-to-eat, and can be incorporated in many classic Hispanic recipes, such as enchiladas, soups, licuados, etc. Yogurt also provides two nutrients that are especially important to Hispanics who suffer from chronic diseases: calcium and potassium, which are needed for treating hypertension and other chronic diseases along with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which emphasizes fruits and vegetables and is lower in sodium than the typical American diet.
In the store, let customers taste foods that you recommend. If you’re introducing a low-fat or reduced-sodium product, try to have it available for a taste test. For example, offer a family member a cup of your new low-fat yogurt. It will earn sales, not to mention health points for customers.
Consider foods that embrace the Hispanic preference for buy-in from all family members.
The Hispanic family unit is tight knit: mothers especially want to know that their children and husbands will accept changes to eating patterns.
Hispanic families spend more on food than other ethnic groups. The entire family often shops for groceries together, so food purchases may be based on what the children like and not necessarily what’s nutritious.
Encourage strategies for managing children’s requests for treats. For a mother who wants to show her love with food, she’s still able to say “yes” within reasonable limits, if you carry nutritious mini-treats that are inexpensive and can satisfy those cravings.
Include foods that show healthier alternatives to high-fat or high-calorie foods. For some Hispanics, language barriers may make label reading difficult. Charts or tables with substitutions may clarify better options. For example, low-fat yogurt could be a substitute for crema (Mexican sour cream) in a recipe.
For Hispanics, culturally relevant brochures featuring primarily Hispanic foods would be helpful as familiar foods are easier to shop for and prepare.
As acculturation increases, brochures on site can feature a wider variety of food offerings. The traditional Hispanic diet is rich in vegetables and fruit, as well as whole grains like quinoa and amaranth, and dried beans. Store owners must become familiar with foods from different countries and regions so they can customize food selection to include traditional foods. Also, brochures should include culturally appropriate nutrition messages for the Hispanic culture.
C-stores can help build on such cultural pride, combining the inherent strengths of the Hispanic diet with stronger community outreach.
Sylvia Klinger, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer, is the founder of Hispanic Food Communications in Hinsdale, Ill., a food communications and culinary consulting company. She is a Hispanic native and a leading expert in cross-cultural Hispanic cuisine as it relates to nutrition and health.