Immigrants Influence Our Nation’s Taste Buds

Immigrants who have been coming to this part of the world in search of a better life have brought with them the flavors of their homelands, shaping American culture in the process. Their unique skills and experiences, combined with their strong drive to succeed, have had tremendous influence on how all who are here live and work. In recent years, immigrant influence has permeated one particular aspect of everyday American life in a fundamental way – how we eat.

Immigrants have always had an impact on our nation’s cuisine – first wave immigrants in the mid-19th century introduced many foods that remain popular today, such as pizza, papayas, and pierogis. It has only been within the last decade, however, that billion dollar companies such as Campbell’s and Nestle have been producing food with flavors and ingredients not native to the United States, commonly referred to as “ethnic food.” From 2010 to 2012, sales of so-called ethnic food rose by 4.7 percent, which translates to $8.7 billion in sales. Sales of ethnic foods in major U.S. grocery store chains are expected to rise by more than 20 percent by 2017. The exponential growth in ethnic food sales in recent years has been strongly correlated to rising populations of immigrants, particularly from Latin American and Asia, areas where the bold flavors of foods such as lemongrass and siracha peppers have been used in recipes for generations. [See We the People – A Nation of Immigrants, CUNY WebPage.]

A quick trip down the aisles of any major American grocery store will reveal new products that aim to market to the taste buds of the immigrant population. A few years ago, Campbell’s introduced a new line of soup that incorporates ethnic flavors such as soy, coconut milk, and green chiles. Nestle recently unveiled a cheesecake kit to the U.S. market that utilizes La Lechera, a sweetened condensed milk considered a staple in Hispanic kitchens. And Jarritos, a producer of brightly colored, fruity sodas that are immensely popular in Mexico, experienced soaring sales when it introduced the product to grocery stores in California. Industry insiders are quick to note, however, that the rising popularity of ethnic food is not entirely dependent on immigrants. Americans as a whole have not only become more comfortable with foreign flavors – they embrace them. “The acculturation of those (immigrant) communities into the mainstream has made American consumers generally more open to new tastes and textures,” said Carlos Velasco, president of the international brands division of Nestle USA, in an interview with the New York Times. Chuck Villa, vice president for customer and consumer insights at Campbell’s, added that young people in particular have changed the food demographic in America. “Spaghetti and meatballs might have been adventurous for their parents, but they’ve grown up with everything from Mexican food to sushi, often right out of the same food court.” [See American Tastes Branch Out, and Food Makes Follow, by Stephanie Strom, The New York Times, 8.Jul.2013.]

Immigrants have undeniably shaped fundamental American values through their skills, education, and hard work. Their influence on everyday life, however, is just as profound. Immigrants have had an impact on what we eat since they first began arriving here, but it has only been recently that global corporations have recognized and marketed to their influence. Now, all Americans have the opportunity to enjoy an array of tastes and flavors, thanks to the unique native cultures of the immigrants who have helped to form our nation.


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