Food Consumption by Latin American Kids

There is a saying, "You are what you eat."  From a nutritional point of view, an adequate and balanced diet is essential for growth, sustenance and health.  But the significance of food extends beyond sheer physical well-being, and in fact may be an important part of cultural self-identity.

In the history of Latin America, there is a strong connection between what people eat and their sense of identity.  One of the dividing marks between the natives and the Europeans is the choice of food.  For example, the indigenous people of Meso-America are corn-based, whereas the Europeans are wheat-based.  In the cultural clashes between the races, food was also one of the battlefields.  Thus, some elitists advocated that the key to modernization in Latin America is the replacement of corn with wheat in the diets of the natives, usually backed up with pseudo-scientific, quasi-religious data about the superiority of wheat.  Today, such claims have been debunked.  If anything, the popular native foods are now proclaimed and embraced as national cuisine.

In the following table, we show survey results about what kinds of foods are being consumed by Latin American kids between the ages of 7 and 11.  The first column of numbers shows the percent of kids who ate the type of food within the last 7 days.  

Food %Ate Last 7 Days SES Level A
%Ate Last 7 Days
SES Level B
%Ate Last 7 Days
SES Level C
%Ate Last 7 Days
SES Level D
%Ate Last 7 Days
Rice 59 55 58 59 62
Chicken 51 36 54 62 46
Bread 45 37 47 52 42
Potatoes 45 48 61 42 41
Eggs 42 28 44 44 42
Fruits 41 45 46 40 35
Spaghetti 38 49 47 35 35
Beef 35 35 37 38 31
Ice cream 35 54 40 37 27
Hamburger 34 37 34 25 17
Cheese 33 33 37 33 30
Pizza 31 49 49 29 23
Yogurt 31 49 49 29 26
Hot dog 22 29 36 22 16
Vegetables 19 18 24 18 17
Beans 18   6 13 15 24
Corn 14   6   9 13 18

Source: Pan Latin American Kids Study 1998, Audits & Surveys Worldwide

In examining these food items, we need to recognize that they are not freely available to everyone.  Some of these items are relatively expensive, so that the poor may not be able to afford them on a regular basis.  The last four columns in the table shows the consumption incidences among various socio-economic levels.  From the table, we see that ice cream, spaghetti, pizza, yogurt and hot dogs are more likely to be consumed by upper-class kids, with many of these items consumed at fast food venues.  Conversely, beans and corn are more likely to be consumed by lower- class kids, being prepared and eaten at home.

Aside from pricing issues, the choice of food is also a statement about cultural identity, which can be inherited habits or acquired tastes.  Thus, beef can be prepared as steak, hamburger or hot dog.  How one chooses says something about oneself.


(posted on 8/28/99 by Roland Soong)

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