On Special Rationed Milk and other Food Products Cubans Eat

Regina Cano

The rationed foods booklet

HAVANA TIMES — Some of us who live in Cuba have the strong feeling that our current eating habits aren’t exactly healthy. Some know this, others simply don’t even worry about it.

The situation could become much worse when many more food products begin to arrive in Cuba as a result of future agreements with the United States or any other country with a food industry ready to export its less popular products back home.

In Cuba, there are official government diets for individuals suffering from celiac disease, gastric ulcers, high cholesterol, HIV, diabetes and other conditions. A medical doctor issues a document and a local entity responsible for food rationing allots that person a series of subsidized “dietary” products, which that person can buy on a monthly basis using their ration booklet.

The supplementary whole powdered milk allotted me on February 23 was considerably “different” from the milk I usually get: it has a different taste, with a lighter, thinner and drier texture. To prepare this powder milk using lukewarm water – it would be impossible to use water at room temperature – results in a soft, sandy paste that swells up inside the cup but does not dissolve. The cups and spoons remain coated with this paste, as though one had added some kind of cereal or flour to the milk. Because of this, this milk lasts much less.

“Perhaps they’ve always mixed the milk powder with something else and the mixer got the proportions wrong this time,” I said to myself.

In my case, I get the whole milk (people call it the “yellow milk” in Cuba) for gastric ulcers. Because of this condition, I supposedly need to drink milk and other neutral foods, such as cassava.

After talking about the problem of the milk with the person who sells it and the manager of the ration locale (as we always suspect those who work in these places abuse the little power they have and generally question their integrity, particularly in connection with the sensitive issue of milk), they assured me they were not to blame, so I ended up paying the company that distributes the product a visit. There, they told me the milk I received must have gone bad because of air that seeped into the bag during packaging. This barely perceptible process may have affected others at one point or other.

Bag of whole powdered milk.

After I was given this explanation, they gave me a new bag of milk and I headed home.

This explanation, however, leaves me with no cards to play, and made me ask myself: how many chemicals are used to prepare this milk formula? I read the ingredients listed on the 1-kg package again: for every 100 grams of product, the milk contains 39.10 grams of carbohydrates, 26 grams of fat, 24.3 grams of protein, 4 grams of humidity and 487.60 Kcal of energy. The package says the milk was produced on February 14, 2016 and expires on May 14, 2016. This list, however, prompts many legitimate questions.

This nutritional information does not in any way clarify the components of the mix: what is the milk made of, in addition to milk? It would seem they forgot to detail its composition, or, perhaps, it has so many of these that it would be a headache to try and squeeze them into such a tiny space. Also, the package makes no mention of the manufacturer, which isn’t Cuban, leaving you even more in the dark about this.

We are constantly reminded that these are subsidized products, but that shouldn’t exempt those who distribute them of responsibility. As the milk isn’t produced domestically, as we are told, there are more than good reasons to include all of the information the customer requires.

My week has involved recurrent talk on the subject of nutrition. Some people I know wonder how long our bodies will be able to withstand the digestive abuse we subject them to daily, aware that we all need to eat and of how hard it is to put a good meal on the table.

One of the factors that has an impact on what people buy, in addition to personal finances, is people’s lack of knowledge on these matters and, therefore, what they perceive to be “good” for the body (of both children and adults) – an attitude of buying the minimum to get by without doing too much “damage.”

This is the result of a diet based on all of the junk food available, a diet that people have adopted and made into a habit. This diet includes hot dogs, powder drinks, canned fruit conserves (which the owners of food establishments sell as “natural,” smoked pork and chicken (treated with potassium nitrate, and other chemicals) and head cheese (the sub-product of a pork sub-product)

People aren’t exactly convinced that, in order to have a better life – a longer and healthier life, that is – they should look for products that are healthier for the body.

It would rather seem we’re fenced in, for, even though meat sub-products are conserved, treated and manufactured, the quality of those destined to hotels and hard currency stores is one thing, while that of the products destined to ration locales (i.e. the rationed economy that those with ration booklets have access to) is quite another.

Being at the bottom of the food-distribution chain is probably no different for Cubans today than it was for humans prior to the advent of “civilization”: it’s like being besieged by a wild beast that’s always on the hunt for you.

In our case, this predatory hunt is expressed in the form of early and adult diabetes (in people without a family history of the condition), in increased blood pressure (brought about by excessive consumption of wheat flour in different forms) and the magnitude of one’s stress (which cause digestive and other problems), to say nothing of serious conditions such as cancer, which has spread as a main cause of death in Cuba and affects people in their daily lives in other ways.

This February, the processed sandwich meat sold at the ration locale was in such condition that my cat didn’t even look at it. Now, I’m going through this unpleasant experience with the milk, as I can’t get my hands on the supposedly better quality milk destined to children (sold in different bags), which is “untouchable.”

The page where they write when you purchase the supplemental milk allotment.

I increasingly get the feeling that the gap between the natural and artificial is narrowing more and more. I know this is nothing new out in the world, but Cuba is just beginning to experience this and the health of its inhabitants is suffering for it.

On occasion, you hear someone say that “they” look after us or try and improve our health in some fashion.

They say this because running after a bus keeps us in shape, and the fact a bit of beef is beyond the financial reach of the majority and drinking a glass of milk every day proves impossible (though this is questionable) spares us the dangers of growing fat.

Following the same logic, however, eating pork in excess, or taking in disguised flour products, doesn’t help us in the least either.

Speaking of proteins, we should literally be swimming in fish, as Cuba is surrounded by water.

But no. The fish or seafood people want to eat is also expensive, considering their salaries. Sometimes, it is hard to find it, and buying it in downtown Havana isn’t the same as doing so in the suburbs.

In Cuba, one grows old with more stress, and children grow up picking up bad eating habits, eating excessive amounts of “knick-knacks.”

To improve one’s health, folks, no matter whether you’re old or young, requires leading a healthy life in every sense of the word, and it is important to ask oneself what one eats and drinks, and how one goes about maintaining such habits.

You also need to ask yourself whether you’re damaging your metabolism, deliberately or unwittingly, or whether you’ve struck a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fat, keeping a watchful eye on sugar.

Life for us Cuban-humans is more important than any financial concerns, no matter how important these are, beyond all of the common or uncommon excuses used (that one doesn’t have enough money and is saving for the future, that the country is under an economic blockade, or the Zika virus is spreading).

I believe that, if we do not act now, as others have also been telling us, we will regret not having taken precautions a year from now.

By then, we will be talking about the types of substances that make up what we eat – if a “green awareness” doesn’t save us first -, foods full of artificial flavors, coloring, high gluccomate contents and fake proteins (or chemicals disguised with names people don’t know), or anything the food industry brings us to feed more people.

These and other substances, owing to our lifestyles, aren’t generally burnt by the body and become fats, surrounding our organism and flooding us with pollutants, not to mention the bad habits they encourage.

From this to a total breakdown is but a small step.

Regina Cano

Regina Cano: I have lived my entire life in Havana, Cuba – the island from which I’ve still never left, and which I love. I was born on September 9, and my parents chose my name out of superstition, but my mother raised me outside the religion professed by her family. I studied accounting and finance at the University of Havana, a profession that I’m not engaged in for the time being, and that I substituted for doing crafts, some ceramics, and studying a little English and about painting. Ah! – concerning my picture: I identify with Rastafarian principles, but I am not one of them. I wear this cap from time to time, but I assure you I just didn't have a better picture.

9 thoughts on “On Special Rationed Milk and other Food Products Cubans Eat

  • March 30, 2016 at 11:29 am
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    This a good starting point article, perhaps it will warn Cubans of what is to come. If the U.S. begins to export food products to Cuba the citizens will be even worse off. In the U.S. we are inundated with chemical additives, GMO foods which are not required by the government to be labeled, meat treated with antibiotics and hormones, milk and cheese from cows treated with hormones to produce more milk, and basically “dead food”. Although “food” may be more plentiful in Cuba if the U.S. exports food products to Cuba, it will not be healthy. Be careful. Be very, very careful of what you may wish.

    I am a Naturopathic physician and professor at a Medical School. I’ve taught nutrition and educated my patient on good nutrition. We encourage people to eat “organic”, NO GMO’s (Monsanto will be all over Cuba), and if you cannot pronounce an additive in food-then don’t put it in your body. Don’t be fooled. Be smart and question everything which you can.

    I wish you all the best.

    Dr. Michael Pece, N.M.D. (retired)

    Reply
    • March 31, 2016 at 6:00 am
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      Good advice. Well taken except if you are hungry.

      Reply
    • April 1, 2016 at 5:56 pm
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      How much sense does it make to worry about GMO crops when your diet
      consists primarily of rice and sugar with a small portion of pork meat
      occasionally?

      Offer me some green or yellow vegetables and I assure you I will not worry if they are GMO or not.

      As Moses says, let us not forget that 3 of the biggest problems in Cuba are breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I know a bit about Cuban agriculture. Most of their food is organic. The problem is there is just not enough of it. The #1 problem with milk is the same, not enough of it.

      Reply
    • April 1, 2016 at 7:58 pm
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      Dr. Pece: you say “If the U.S. begins to export food products to Cuba……..” Are you aware that the US has exported a large part, some 10-20%, of the food consumed in Cuba for well over a decade? Their bread and beer is made with US grain. They use a lot of US soybeans. Most of the chicken consumed in Cuba comes from the US.

      Reply
  • March 30, 2016 at 9:40 pm
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    First, there are many very healthy foods that can be sent to Cubans from the US. Even now, Cubans are getting Virginia-grown apples. The junk foods are bound to make their way there so I submit it is up to Cubans NOT to buy it. Still, I know there is just something very special about a great potato chip (but nothing healthy). Second, my doctor told me milk was not good for ulcers. The advice drink milk for an ulcer is simply an old wives’ tale.

    Reply
  • March 31, 2016 at 10:42 am
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    You both bring up good points. Yes, there may be some very healthy foods exported to Cuba for the Cubans, but what I was trying to warn about was beware… just because it is from the US (or from any country) does not (in itself) make it healthy. Try, as much as possible, to eat organic foods. I know when you are hungry all food is good, but try as much as possible to be careful. Ask questions and demand healthy food, as the lady did who wrote the article. The author is being careful with the powdered milk. She questions it before she drinks it and obviously found it unhealthy to put in her body. I admire her for that. It is your body. Make sure what you put in your body is good. I know that may not be possible if the people are hungry and I respect that. I am not suggesting that food imports not be eaten by Cubans, I just wanted to educate them.

    Several years ago, when we lived in Mexico, I saw an article on the web that stated Fidel was going to have a program in which Cubans could get from the Government, I think, about 5 Hectares. This was to grow organic food for the people. I don’t know what ever happened to that program, but I thought that was a great start.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Michael

    Reply
  • April 2, 2016 at 10:58 am
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    Okay, my first post did not post so I’ll try again. Bob, I totally disagree with you. What I was trying to do was to bring forth a discussion of and educate people of the dangers of “modern food”. When the embargo is fully lifted and food floods in to Cuba (if that really happens) I just want the Cuban people to choose wisely, that food from the US unless it is organic or free-range is simply not healthy.

    Did you know that wheat from the US is full of toxins added to the wheat (bread and beer)? Did you know that soybeans are 90% GMO products, which you state “They use a lot of US soybeans.”

    Reply
    • April 2, 2016 at 2:29 pm
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      Dr. Pece: I believe I understand your GMO concern even though I do not completely share it. What I believe you do not understand is the food situation in Cuba.

      US agricultural products have been excluded from the trade embargo since 2000. Cuba is a major agricultural export market for the US.

      You can discuss GMO products at length. But frequently in Cuba the choice is to eat GMO products, such a bread or soybean products or go hungry. You seem to believe Cuban shoppers have a choice between GMO products or products free of GMO which is simply not the case.

      You do not seem to be aware that about 40% of the food Cubans consume comes from the bodega, the government store where Cubans get almost free food for their libreta (equivalent to US food stamps except every Cuban family has one). There are no choices at a bodega other than to take the product offered or walk out the door empty handed.

      Are you aware the only place to buy bread in Cuba is a panaderia, the government bakery where the price is greatly subsidized? The only choice is to eat bread made with US grain, containing GMO flour according to you, or simply do not eat bread which is a major staple?

      The GMO discussion takes on a whole new light when ones option is to continue to go hungry.

      Reply
      • April 2, 2016 at 9:55 pm
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        Bob,
        You must have a vast knowledge of the inner workings of every day life in Cuba and I appreciate that. I understand your point (which is absolutely defensible) that with the current situation in Cuba you must eat what is available. I just wanted to agree with Ms. Cano and expand on the topic to try and educate people. I think although food has been allowed into Cuba since 2000 it is obviously not very plentiful (or there would not be hungry citizens), too expensive for the average person and I don’t think it is very nutritious. If Cuba was importing dry milk from the US (which I do not know) I don’t think the milk would be mixed with some other product as Ms. Cano stated in her article. I understand your knowledge and appreciate it. I want Cubans to know what is healthy and what is not and if they have a choice to be able with knowledge choose healthy. That is the best I can do.

        Thanks for your reply

        Reply

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