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Mexican food becoming America's favorite ethnic treat
Scripps Howard News Service


February 28, 2006


Hispanic food - particularly Mexican - is becoming so popular that it is threatening to displace those long-time ethnic favorites, Italian and Chinese.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Americans are eating four times more Mexican food than they ate 20 years ago, and sales of salsa - once a specialty condiment used for tacos - are outstripping ketchup's sales.

Roberto Quinones, head of the American Tortilla Industry Association, estimates that sales of tortillas topped $6 billion in 2004 - double that of a decade ago.



Quinones said it's difficult to get a true estimate of the size of the business because there are many small mom-and-pop manufacturers often operating out of their homes. Tortillas are also finding a niche in American palates, with popular sandwich "wraps" replacing traditional bread.

Quinones said demographics are a driving force for the popularity of tortillas. The U.S. Census Bureau says that Hispanics last year became the nation's No. 1 minority. The 2000 census counted 35 million people of Hispanic origin in the United States.

"Then there's the portability factor - it's hard to eat moo shoo pork driving down the road," Quinones said. "A lot of things are converging on each other."

McDonald's is trying to catch the trend. The hamburger giant has bought majority ownership in Chipotle Mexican Foods, which operates 450 restaurants in the United States. Denver-based Chipotle floated a stock offering this year, saying it intends to use the money to add stores.

In its annual survey of American eating habits, the Institute of Food Technologists said that Mexican food has almost doubled in popularity among people who cook regularly, from 44 percent in 1985 to 86 percent in 2003. Italian, Mexican and Chinese food remain the most popular ethnic foods, well in advance of Japanese, German, Greek, Thai, Indian and Middle Eastern.

Like America's version of Chinese food, there's only a weak link between the super-sized and super-fattened food sold as Hispanic or Mexican in the United States, and the real thing. Many Mexican dishes, like the deep-fried burrito known as the chimichanga, originated in the United States.

The Americanized version of Mexican food is loaded with calories.

Taco Bell's Nachos Bell Grande contain 760 calories and 39 grams of fat, while Chipotle's Beef Burrito has 1,026 calories and 46 grams of fat. The Steak quesadilla offered by Baja Fresh has 1,450 calories and 86 grams of fat, while Carne Asada Taco with rice and beans offered by Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill has 710 calories and 22 grams of fat.

In contrast, south of the border, traditional ceviche, or marinated fish, has 140 calories and 5 grams of fat, while chile rellenos - a chile stuffed with meat and cheese - has 237 calories and 8 grams of fat. The grilled pork steak poc chuc has from 160 calories to 230 calories, and the Pacific red snapper sauteed in mushrooms known as the Huachinango a la Veracrusana, has from 144 calories to 270 calories, and from 2 to 9 grams of fat, depending on serving size.

How long Hispanics adhere to their heritage is disputed.

The NDP Group, a Port Washington, N.Y., organization that follows trends in the food industry, says its studies conclude that the more acculturated Hispanics become in America, the more they take on American eating habits.

NDP said a recent survey found that as Hispanics become acculturated, so their diets change and they tend to eat more eggs, tea, chips, potatoes and frozen dinners Dropped from the diets of acculturated Hispanics are leafy salads, fresh fruits and milk.

Supermarkets love recent Hispanic immigrant shoppers because they spend more than Anglos. The Food Marketing Institute estimates that Hispanic shoppers spend more than any other shoppers - $133 a week compared to $92.50 a week.

"It's because they prepare more of their food at home," said FMI spokesman Todd Hultquist.

The NDP survey found that Hispanic families who are recent immigrants to the United States prepare homemade soup at least three times as often as non-Hispanic, and soup is the most popular food prepared from scratch. But that also drops off sharply as Hispanics become acculturated and find other things to do with their busy lives.

"As we continue to learn about the impact of the Hispanic market in the U.S., we also recognize the influence of America's eating patterns on Hispanics," said Ann Hanson, director of the NDP Group.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)

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