Published in this month's issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, the research found that around 26 percent of Hispanic children studied were obese by the age of three, compared to 16 percent of black children and 15 percent of white children.
The researchers, led by Robert Whitaker of Mathematica Policy Research, Princeton, New Jersey, examined around 2,500 children born in 75 US hospitals between 1998 and 2000. They looked at the families' ethnic background, education level, income and access to food.
According to the researchers, the levels of socioeconomic status of the families studies were very similar between blacks and Hispanics, yet the latter group of three year-olds were at a 50 percent higher risk of obesity.
"By 36 months it's clear that Hispanic kids are at a significantly higher risk of obesity than other children, and we don't really know why. What is clear is that it doesn't appear to be socio economic factors, so we have to start looking at other possibilities," Whitaker told FoodNavigator-USA.com.
Indeed, it has long been suggested that Hispanics have a different genetic make-up, which means that they react differently to certain diets and are more prone to health conditions including obesity and diabetes.
"It is suspected that Hispanics are at an increased risk of obesity on a genetic basis, but no-one has as yet identified the genes that would be responsible for this. It is a scientific hypothesis but is yet to be proven," said Whitaker.
Yet despite the lack of scientific evidence, measures are being taken to encourage a specific diet adapted to Hispanic consumers. Last week, FoodNavigator-USA.com reported on a new initiative by the Latino Nutrition Coalition (LNC) to provide booklets with nutritional information and product suggestions to Latino consumers.
The guides, which are expected to become available in supermarkets by October, will promote a dietary pyramid for Latinos similar to the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, but adapted to the Latino taste, heritage and genetic make-up.
"Because Latinos have a certain genetic predisposition towards health- for example they are twice as likely to develop diabetes, they must adapt their diet with this in mind. But there's no point in having a pyramid if nobody understands it or uses it. That's why we're developing educational material to back up the pyramid," said LNC's Liz Mintz.
Compared to the USDA's pyramid, the LNC's dietary guidelines for Latinos recommend less sweet goods and more of foods such as corn, potatoes and beans, together with more fruits and vegetables specific to the consumer group, including tomatoes, onions and chili peppers.
Estimates by Hispanic Telligence, based on an analysis of US Bureau of Economic Analysis figures, reveal that the Hispanic purchasing power between 1994 and 2004 revealed a compound annual growth rate of 7.7 percent- nearly three times the 2.8 percent total US rate of disposable income. Indeed, Latino buying power is forecast to reach around $1 trillion by 2010.
According to the authors of the current study, the "disparity in obesity between Hispanic and non-Hispanic children seems to develop early in life, so future research into modifiable determinants of this disparity should focus on the period from conception to school entry."
"This research might benefit from more emphasis on qualitative studies across racial/ethnic groups of those cultural factors that can influence energy balance, such as how young children are nourished or spend their time."