The numbers are impressive: Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority in the United States, with 53 million men, women, and children representing 17 percent of the nation’s total population according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2050, this number is supposed to reach 132.8 million, primarily composed of Hispanics of Mexican, Puerto Rican, El Salvadorian, and Cuban descent.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that the influx of Hispanic immigrants and generations of Latinos already established here are having a major impact on food retailing, consumption, and shopping habits across the United States. One only has to look at the booming popularity of avocados, mangos, tomatillos, and chile peppers.
“The Hispanic population has grown faster than anyone expected in the last decade,” says April Batriz, general manager of Nogales, AZ-based B.J. Brothers Produce, which specializes in hot peppers, Roma tomatoes, and tomatillos. “Hot peppers aren’t just for Hispanics anymore—serranos and jalapeños are popular commodities across the board. Everyone wants them.”
Fausto Alvarez of Miami-based Presidente Supermarkets and Cuba Tropical, Inc., agrees, noting the tremendous increase in the Latino population has influenced what other groups eat and where they shop. “U.S. supermarket chains have to sell whatever people are looking for, and increasingly they’re looking for Latin products and produce.”
There’s even a trade event dedicated to showcasing and promoting Hispanic foods and beverages. The only tradeshow of its kind in North America, Expo Comida Latina features hundreds of exhibitors, from brokers and suppliers to importers, wholesalers, and product manufacturers. The goal is not only to offer a forum in which to meet and greet, but to educate attendees on the latest trends in Hispanic retail and foodservice.
From country to country, Hispanics differ—in expressions, preferences, and, most especially, food. So how much do you really know about Latin fruits and vegetables? You may know Hispanics enjoy rice and beans as a part of their meals, and that Mexicans consume tortillas like Americans eat bread, but did you know Cubans favor galletas and Venezuelans use arepas? In the interest of broadening horizons and sharing a few interesting facts, we put together a true/false quiz to test your knowledge of Latin food. Here are the answers—and don’t worry, we’re not keeping track…
The state of Michoacán is Mexico’s top avocado-producing region.
True – Michoacán outperforms all other states in avocado production. It is, in fact, the largest producer of avocados in the world. During the 2012-13 season, the region exported more than 560,000 tons of the fruit, a 40 percent increase over the previous season. Most avocado exports are destined for the United States, Europe, Asia, and Canada. According to the Mexican government, Michoacán’s avocados are also conquering the Japanese market with 52,000 tons shipped between July 2012 and July 2013.
Formerly famous for once-a-year Super Bowl guacamole or as an accompaniment to tortilla chips, avocados (once known as the ‘alligator pear’) have exploded in popularity over the past five years to become a mainstream staple.
A prime example is inclusion on sandwich chain Subway’s summer menu. Though often maligned in the past for its fat content, the avocado is now touted for its heart-healthy properties, making it a go-to item for shoppers of all ages and ethnicities. Californians have long enjoyed the particular joys of avocados, and the rest of the world has finally caught on. Though many grower-shippers have feared market saturation, consumers simply cannot get enough avocados.
Tracey Altman, vice president of marketing at Saginaw, TX-based Fresherized Foods, whose Wholly Guacamole and Wholly Salsa brands are sold at retailers nationwide, sees big growth in demand beginning in the southern U.S. and increasingly heading northward. She believes year-round availability, changing demographics, and social and mainstream media have helped contribute to the avocado’s current rock-star status. “You have empty-nesters with additional income, and they’re being more health-conscious; you also have Millennials looking for products and snacks with clean labels,” she says. “Millennials also trend toward spicy and ethnic food, which drives new flavor profiles. Both of these areas of our business are growing.”
TRUE OR FALSE? TEST YOUR KNOWLEDGE
• The state of Michoacán is Mexico’s top avocado-producing region.
• Tomatillos are a smaller version of red, round tomatoes.
• A traditional “comfort food” in Puerto Rican culture is pastelón, similar to lasagna.
• Mexico is the world’s second-largest exporter of mangos.
• Malanga is a part of Caribbean diets and similar to a honeydew melon.
• Toronto, Ontario, has the highest Hispanic population in Canada.
• Sweet potatoes, yams, and boniatos are different names for the same vegetable.
• Jícama is often blended into ice cream, ices, or other desserts.
• Native to Southeast Asia, carambola or starfruit is now cultivated in Mexico.
• Charlotte, North Carolina is home to the fastest-growing Hispanic population in the United States.
• Much of Mexico’s dragon fruit, or pitaya, is grown in Tehuacán, Puebla.
• Most habanero peppers are grown In the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, or Quintana Roo.
• Unlike other root vegetables, yuca or cassava can spoil rapidly.
• The majority of Chile’s table grape production is located in the southernmost tip of the country.
• Mamey sapote is grown in several locales in California.
Tomatillos are a smaller version of red, round tomatoes.
False – Though similar in appearance to tomatoes, tomatillos are a member of the gooseberry family and covered with paper-thin husks. The fruit turns yellow when ripe, though most are prepared unripe (green ranging to a greenish-purple) for use in fresh salsas, sauces, stews, and salads. A staple in Mexican diets, tomatillos have burst onto the international food scene with gusto.
According to Batriz, the popularity of tomatillos has spiked dramatically over the last few years. “We couldn’t keep up this year,” she admits. “People were calling us for tomatillos left and right; it was one of the biggest-selling items this season.”
Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer of Tubac, AZ-based Ciruli Brothers, agrees, noting that “demand for tomatillos is growing fast, particularly in the foodservice sector, with the retail sector close behind.” He points to restaurant chains like Chipotle, known for made-to-order food, which have helped put tomatillo-based salsas on the food map. Demand has been further boosted by the foodie culture, as well as social and mainstream media.
A traditional “comfort food” meal in Puerto Rican culture is pastelón, similar to lasagna. Instead of noodles, however, the dish calls for long slices of plantains.
True – There are many ways to use plantains, or plátanos; they can be eaten ripe (maduros) when dark brown or nearly black, or unripe (verdes) when still green or slightly yellow. Pastelón is indeed very similar to lasagna, complete with ground meat and cheese. The key difference is the use of lightly fried slices of fully ripened plantains instead of noodles.
Unlike the banana, its sweeter cousin, the plantain is nearly always cooked: fried, boiled, mashed, or added to soups and stews. Among the most popular ways to serve plantains are thickly sliced and fried twice—these are tostones, patacones, or tostadas, depending on which country you’re in—or very thinly sliced and fried once—called mariquitas in Cuba, platanutres in Puerto Rico, chifles in Peru, and platanitos in Colombia. Over the past decade, plantains have appeared on more U.S. restaurant menus and in supermarkets. These days, it’s the odd-grocer out who doesn’t have at least a few plantains on display.
Mexico is the world’s top exporter of mangos.
True – Considered the world’s most popular fruit, mangos originated in Asia, most likely India, and are actually related to cashews and pistachios. Although India still leads global production, mangos are considered a symbol of love and much of the fruit is consumed within the country.
In recent years, Mexico has made significant strides in both production and shipping; its export season begins at the end of January and generally runs through August, sometimes into September. That said, mangos are still available all year, with production from several locations in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Most mangos sold in the United States come from our southerly neighbor, as one out every 20 mangos consumed worldwide comes from Mexico.
According to the National Mango Board, by mid-June 2013 Mexican mango shipments totaled 35.6 million boxes for the current season, up from about 32 million boxes a year earlier. Mango consumption has jumped an impressive 30 percent in the United States since 2008. Most are one of six popular varieties: Ataulfo, Kent, Keitt, Francis, Haden and Tommy Atkins. “We’re seeing more demand for mangos in traditionally non-Hispanic areas,” says Ciruli, who sells the increasingly popular ‘Champagne’ mango and recently set up a website devoted exclusively to the succulent fruit. And although customers have been ordering larger quantities and runnning more ads, he notes, “more work still needs to be done by the industry to promote consumption.”
Malanga is a traditional part of Caribbean diets and is similar to a honeydew melon.
False – It is a tuber similar to potatoes, albeit considerably less attractive and coated with wiry hair. Especially popular in Cuba, malanga develops a nutty taste when roasted or fried; boiled, it becomes creamy and makes a superb purée akin to whipped potatoes in both taste and consistency. Tasty as it is, malanga is fairly high in calories while not offering much in terms of nutrition. The good news for food-allergy sufferers: malanga is one of the most hypoallergenic foods in the world.
Toronto, Ontario, has the highest Hispanic population in Canada.
True – In 2011, Toronto’s Hispanic population reached 381,200 and accounted for 2.8 percent of the city’s total headcount—up by about 25 percent from the previous census in 2006. While it may seem like a big jump, Hispanics comprised just 1.2 percent of the country’s population. The dominant minority in Canada is Asian, with nearly 1.5 million across the country, primarily of Chinese descent. In 2012 alone, nearly 33,000 Chinese were issued permanent resident status in Canada.
Sweet potato, yam, and boniato are different names for the same vegetable.
False – While they all have share similar traits, they aren’t the same vegetable. Boniato, also called batata, Cuban sweet potato, camote, or white sweet potato, is a smaller and less ‘sweet’ variety of traditional sweet potatoes. Native to the Americas and thought to have been cultivated as early as 1000 B.C., boniatos are big business in Florida, where more than 5,000 acres are planted every year.
Sweet potatoes, often mislabeled as yams, are moist with a sweet flavor and generally come in two varieties in the United States: white flesh with a golden skin and traditional orange flesh with brownish skin. They are also native to the Americas; in ancient Mexico, Mayans substituted sweet potatoes for corn in meals when maize crops were low.
While the terms “sweet potato” and “yam” are often used interchangeably, they are not the same vegetable. Yams are tubers native to Africa and, like boniatos, are a staple of Caribbean meals. They have more starch and drier flesh than sweet potatoes, and the skin is dark and rough like bark. Flesh can be white, purple, or red.
Jícama is often blended into ice cream, ices, or other desserts.
False – Jícama is a vegetable that looks like a potato (it is often called the Chinese or Mexican potato), but has the nutty, sweet taste and crunchy consistency of a water chestnut. In Mexico, it is usually peeled, sliced, and topped with lime juice and chili powder. It is also popular in salads and slaws. According to Sandra Aguilar, marketing manager at Ciruli Brothers, demand for jícama is on the rise, from both retailers and foodservice companies.
And though Ciruli Bros. doesn’t currently handle jícama, Aguilar has traditionally eaten it in pico de gallo (rooster’s beak), labeled as a salsa in the United States. In Mexico, however, it is not a salsa but a fruit salad. “It typically includes a combination of any of the following: fresh chopped mango, jícama, watermelon, coconut, cucumber, orange, and pineapple,” she says. “You arrange the fresh fruit in a dish and serve with a splash of lemon juice, salt, and your favorite chile topping, such as tajín or chamoy.”
Native to Southeast Asia, carambola is now widely cultivated in Mexico.
False – Carambola, also known as starfruit, is a popular yellow-fleshed fruit with a crisp, sweet taste. When sliced horizontally, it is a decorative five-pointed star, eaten raw or used in salads and desserts, pickled, or made into jam. Its taste has been compared to a combination of apple and pear tinged with a hint of citrus.
A native of Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, carambola is now grown in Central and South America and the Caribbean. It’s also grown commercially in Florida, where the trees were introduced a century ago, and in Hawaii. An interesting note: according to research by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, carambola can be toxic to people with kidney disease, as each fruit may (but doesn’t necessarily) contain enough oxalic acid to negatively affect renal function.
Charlotte, North Carolina is home to the fastest growing Hispanic population in the United States.
True – Although large metro areas like Los Angeles, New York, Houston, Miami, and Chicago all have sizeable Hispanic communities, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham have experienced a veritable boom in Latino population growth. From 2000 to 2013, Charlotte’s Hispanic population grew a whopping 168 percent, while Raleigh-Durham’s was close behind at just under 139 percent.
According to a study conducted by Nielsen in May 2013, many Latinos, particular younger generations, are leaving large urban centers for the suburbia of smaller cities like Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham. The result is soaring growth and a cultural shift in these new markets.
Much of Mexico’s dragon fruit or pitaya is grown in Tehuacán, Puebla.
True – Although pitaya is grown commercially in Central America, where its origins are said to be, the arid Mexican states of Puebla and Jalisco are home to annual bumper crops of this unusual cactus fruit.
With its deep red coloring and spines, pitaya is a darkly interesting fruit that can be eaten raw or used in a variety of sauces, and is rich in Vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants. There are a variety of cactus plants—19 altogether—that produce edible dragon fruit. And unlike its prickly-pear cousin, which is only 50 percent pulp, the pitaya is mostly edible flesh, constituting up to 90 percent of the fruit. In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opened the door to pitaya imports, as long as the fruit has been irradiated or treated with appropriate phytosanitary measures.
Most habanero peppers are grown in the Mexican states of Yucatán, Campeche, or Quintana Roo.
True – This longtime, spicy favorite of Mexicans has steadily gained popularity among chefs and brave consumers in the United States and Canada, though its fiery flavor is not for everyone. Unripe habaneros are green, but mature colors can range from orange to pink to red, to even the occasional white or brown.
Unlike other root vegetables, yuca can spoil rapidly.
True – Yuca root, also known as cassava or manioc—but not to be confused with the flowering ‘yucca’ plant—is well known as the source of starchy tapioca, and is either sweet or bitter.
Grown throughout the world, it is not a popular export due to rapid oxidation after harvest. It must also be cooked before eating due to natural toxins. If processed or frozen, yuca can last months. It’s especially popular in Cuba and in parts of South America, where it is cooked with olive oil, boiled with garlic mojo, and in stews. Recently, U.S. restaurants have been reinventing this tough root by turning it into French fries.
The majority of Chile’s table grape production is located in the southernmost tip of the country.
False – Most of Chile’s grape production is just above its midsection regions, including Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins, Valparaíso, Coquimbo, and north to Atacama. As the world’s largest exporter of fresh grapes, Chile grows more than three dozen varieties, although Thompson Seedless and Flame Seedless represent the lion’s share of exports.
About 47 percent of Chilean grapes are shipped to the United States, 23 percent to European markets, 20 percent to the Far East, and 10 percent to rest of Latin America. During the 2012-13 season, Chile exported 846,000 metric tons of grapes to the world, a 4 percent increase over the previous year. Despite its number-one spot, Chile is facing increasing competition from South Africa, Peru, and even California growers, who have added more late-season varieties to their plantings.
Mamey sapote is grown in several locales in California.
False – A native of Central America, mamey (mah-may) sapote, or pouteria sapota, is grown in Mexico, several Central American countries, and the Caribbean. It has also been grown in southern Florida since the late 1800s. Despite its rough brown skin, the ripe orange-red flesh is sweet and unique, a mix of pumpkin and sweet potato with cherry and almond undertones.
Much sought after, especially by Cubans who use it to make mamey ice cream and batidos (milkshakes), the mamey is nevertheless hard to find and buy. Why? It takes nearly two years from flower to fruit for the mamey to be ready for harvest. Even so, many think it’s a fruit worth waiting for.
Pass or Fail?
So how did you do? Any way you slice it, Hispanic produce is not only on the rise, but here to stay as shoppers of all ethnicities buy and experiment with fruit and vegetable dishes. In the years to come, previously ‘new’ or ‘exotic’ foods will become mainstream—but still delicious.
Chris Puentes, president of Orange, CA-based Interfresh, Inc. believes avocados, for one, will continue to grow in market share. “We see a continued increase in supply, as Mexico continues to ship here, and Peru and other countries start sending fruit to the United States as well. We see an unusually bright future in avocados as demand and volumes continue to soar.”