Is Racial Division Influencing Consumption Habits?

Healthy food choices may lead to health disparities. Race may have a role to play as well.


Neetish Basnet

10/24/2016 3 min read

Past dusk on a typical Wednesday, a compliance of shopper queues at the checkout counter in Patel Brothers, the Indian grocery store. Most of them are accustomed to the distinct smell that surrounds the place. A young man of Indian heritage lays all his items on the conveyor belt—one box of alphonso mangos, one cauliflower, a bunch of carrots, a one-gallon milk, a bag of tomatoes and two eggplants.

He and his family are traditionally vegetarians, said he, strolling the shopping cart to his car. For many consumers like him, racial and ethnic diversity affects how and on what they spend money.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ survey of U.S. consumer expenditures 2015 shows subtle — yet important — differences in consumption and expenditure habits between Asian Americans and other racial groups and its impact on health and wellness.

In comparison to other races, Asian Americans spent the largest amount in education and consumed more fruits and vegetables, according to the survey.

A person with a college degree is likely to know a thing or two about nutrition.

“[Asian Americans] are well aware of their health,” said Dr. Ling Xu, assistant professor at UT-Arlington School of Social Work. “I think it’s also based on the culture; we think disease come from your mouth, and nutrition also comes from your mouth.”

Much of Xu’s research focused on dementia caregiving to Chinese older adults in the United States and China. However, she now plans to expand the research population to older adults of other racial groups, and perhaps reduce the focus on Chinese older adults.

“For Chinese Older adults here, we do not have a lot of them with dementia,” she said. “I think compared to other minorities, they are physically healthier. Because you know — their diet, they exercise more… and the selection barrier—if you can come to United States, you are generally healthier.”

Asian Americans have the longest life expectancy (87.3 years), which is more than the nation’s average life expectancy (78.6 years), according to a 2016 report by Social Science Research Council, which used mortality counts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics for their calculations.

Lifestyle and healthier food habit of Asian Americans appear to influence their longer life expectancy rate. Similarly, avoidance of unhealthy food habits could affect their good health as well.

Dr. Brandon N. Respress, assistant professor at College of Nursing and Health Innovation in UT-Arlington, regarded a combination of poor diet, lack of physical activity and smoking to be the leading cause behind cardiovascular diseases.

“Racial minorities disproportionately, typically have worse cardiovascular health outcomes,” she said. “But, I can’t say necessarily that it [eating certain types of food] really is a race thing. Research shows it is also because of pressure and stress of dealing with everyday discrimination and/or racism… because of the interaction, the social factor occurring in the country.”

Compared to the total national mean, Asian Americans spent 10.4% less on healthcare, 6.7% less on health insurance and 14.4% less on medical supplies, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2015.

The fewer expenses on health facilities mean Asian Americans, even though a minority, enjoy better health and tend to get less sick than rest of the country.

“[Health risks] depends on what type of stores and things are available in certain neighborhood and whether they are middle-income or not,” Respress said. “Because we also have those differences — if it’s more of a middle-class neighborhood, no matter the race composition, they may have better food choices than lower income neighborhoods.”

Asian Americans earned the highest income before and after tax and spend the most as a consumer group, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey, 2015.

“Where is the room for anybody to save in any of these racial groups?” said Respress, looking at a printed copy of the survey results. “If you were to have a tragic health event in your lifetime or in your family, you have maybe $5,000 if you were saving that all. And one emergency room visit is more than $5,000.”

Even with all the numerical differences, one thing stands out: Americans are great consumers — impartial to racial diversity.

[Note: White includes Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and approximately 1 percent reporting more than one race.]