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.
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.”
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.