Cuba and US: Food Customs and Health

Agata Kowalewska and Edwin Makarevich

Cubans in the US

Cubans have been coming to the US as far back as the 1890s, but did not arrive in large numbers until after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 (Smith, 2012). Since then, Cubans have continued to migrate to the US where they are currently the third largest Hispanic population; totaling 1.8 million people (Ennis et al. 2011). Over two-thirds of Cubans live in Florida and most of them in Miami where they have used their influence to dominate many aspects of the culture, but most noticeably the cuisine (Ennis et al. 2011; Smith 2012). Cubans only make up 3.7% of the total Hispanic population in the US but have the second largest Latin gastronomy in the country (Smith, 2012).

Figure 1. A Cuban restaurant in Miami, FL.
Figure 1.  A Cuban restaurant in Miami, FL.
Credit: Edwin Makarevich

Traditional and Common Meals

Traditionally, Cubans are meat lovers and consume some type of meat at almost every meal. The most popular meat is pork, which usually is served as lechon asado (roast pork), masas de puerco (fried pork chunks), or as pan con lechon (in a sandwich) (Boswell and Curtis, 1984). Pork is also found in croquetas (fried breaded meat paste), chorizo (spicy sausage), the sandwich Cubano, and the medianoche (midnight sandwich), (Boswell and Curtis, 1984; Vicaria, 1990). Along with pork, both the Cuban sandwich and medianoche contain Swiss cheese, but the Cuban sandwich is larger and served on Cuban bread, whereas the medianoche is served on an egg batter based roll (Boswell and Curtis, 1984). Finally, for special occasions an entire pig is cooked open pit style (Vicaria, 1990). Cubans love pork and if available most would eat it every day of the week roasted, fried, or on a sandwich (Porrata, 2008).

Beef, the second most popular meat in the Cuban diet can be served as palomilla (thin sliced sirloin), ropa vieja (shredded beef), frita (pork/beef burger) and picadillo (a spicy beef hash) (Boswell and Curtis, 1984). Chicken is eaten as arroz con pollo (chicken and yellow rice), as pan-fried boneless chicken breast, or as chicken soup (Boswell and Curtis, 1984).  Seafood is most commonly eaten as fried shrimp or lobster added to paella or in sopon marinero (seafood stew) (Vicaria, 1990). Even though Cuba is an island nation, it is much more common to see Cubans eating pork or beef than any type of seafood. This is due to the typical Cuban taste preference for high fat, high calorie beef and pork over the leaner meat of fish (Porrata, 2008).

Another staple of the Cuban diet is black beans and rice (preferably white rice), which is prepared using a thick sauce consisting of fat, small pork chunks, and lard. Kidney beans or white beans may also be used in place of black beans (Boswell and Curtis, 1984).

Less than 20% of the native Cuban population consumes adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables (5 to 9 servings per day) (Porrata, 2008). However, when eaten, fruta bomba (papaya), coco (coconut), mango, mamey, guava, grapes, sweet bananas, and plantains are the most commonly consumed. Green plantains are boiled and eaten as a vegetable, or fried to make tostones (Boswell and Curtis, 1984).

Root vegetables most often eaten include yuca, malanga, nama, and boniato, which are often prepared by boiling. Corn can be found in soups, stews and tamales. Cuban tamales are prepared using corn meal, spices, and bits of meat to make a thick paste that is then wrapped in a cornhusk. Potatoes are eaten as papas fritas (French fries), or served in soups and stews (Boswell and Curtis, 1984). 

Typical deserts include a variety of pastries, cakes, and custards that are consumed on special occasions or at meals throughout the day (Vicaria, 1990). The quintessential beverage is known as café cubano, un cafecito, or Cuban coffee, which is a dark espresso served in shot sized coffee cups (Smith, 2012). Other common drinks include café con leche and a variety of sodas specifically marketed towards Cubans known as Marterva and Pina as well as guarapo (sugar cane juice) (Vicaria, 1990).

Diet and Health

The traditional diet is high in calories, fat, and sugar due to cooking in fat, an abundance of starchy refined foods, and the frequent consumption of sugary drinks and deserts. Cuban Americans who adhere to this diet often have problems with excess body weight. Unfortunately, Cubans who adopt the typical American diet often gain weight and increase their risk for diabetes and other health problems (Boone, 1989; Vicaria, 1990).

Fortunately, there is hope in the form of a government supported diet change campaign in Cuba (Giraldo, 2006). Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, organic farms have been popping up all over Cuba (Giraldo, 2006). Most of their crops have been sold to tourists until recently. Under Raúl Castro’s control, the Cuban government has begun to educate its citizens about ways of incorporating vegetables into everyday dishes and about their importance for health (Cuban Cuisine and Health, 2013, Giraldo, 2006).

Health and Dietary Future

Unfortunately, 50% of Cubans living in Cuba do not relate diet to health, and fall into the habit of eating the same foods every day with no regard for recommendations or health recommendations (Porrata, 2008). In 2000, Cuban women had the highest coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality rate and Cuban men the third highest when compared to nine other Latin American countries, the United States, and Canada. Cuban immigrants in the US, surrounded by the plethora of inexpensive fast food, experience higher prevalence of obesity and type 2 diabetes than residents of Cuba (Peña et al. 2012).

The push by the Cuban government for its citizens to consume more fruits and vegetables is an essential step in curbing Cuban’s obesity and health challenges. Teaching its citizens the health costs associated with eating the traditional Cuban diet can encourage citizens to make their own educated dietary decisions. After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cubans experienced a great food shortage. Their caloric intake dropped 1000 calories per day and they went without meat for months (Porrata, 2008). Then in 2000, the Cuban government implemented a vegetarian initiative, which the Cuban people completely rejected, forcing the closure of the six state-run vegetarian restaurants (Porrata, 2008).  Changing the traditional Cuban diet will not be easy, but increased availability of fresh vegetables and dietary education can make a difference for those who remain in Cuba and those who move to to the US.   

References

Boone, M. S. (1989). Capital Cubans: Refugee Adaptation in Washington, D.C. Immigrant Communities & Ethnic Minorities in the United States & Canada. New York: AMS Press.

Boswell, T. D., & Curtis, J. R. (1984). Cuban-American Experience: Culture, Images, and Perspectives. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman & Allanheld. Retrieved June 23, 2021 from https://www.jstor.org/stable/24485985?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents  

Cuban Cuisine and Health. (2013). Retrieved June 23, 2021 from https://ucglobalcuba.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/cuban-cuisine-and-health/

Ennis, S. R., Rios-Vargas, M., & Albert, N. G. (2011). The Hispanic Population: 2010 (United States, Census Bureau). Retrieved June 23, 2021 from http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-04.pdf

Giraldo, G. (2006). Obesity: A Growing Problem in Cuba. MEDICC. Retrieved June 23, 2021 from www.medicc.org/publications/cuba_health_reports/007.pdf

Peña, M. S., Patel, D., Leyva, D. R., Khan, B. V., & Sperling, L. (2012). Lifestyle Risk Factors and Cardiovascular Disease in Cubans and Cuban Americans. Cardiology Research and Practice, 2012, 1-6. Retrieved June 23, 2021 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22203917/

Porrata, C. (2008). Cubans' Deadly Diet: A Wakeup Call. MEDICC, 10(2). Retrieved June 23, 2021 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21483370  

Smith A.F. (ed). (2012) Cuban American Food. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: Oxford University Press. Retrieved June 23, 2023 from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199734962.001.0001/acref-9780199734962-e-0239

Vicaria M.E. (1990). Cuba Food Traditions in Cultural Food Patterns of Florida. A Handbook. Lieberman, L.S. and Bobroff, L.B. editors. University of Florida Press.

Publication #FSHN17-8

Date: 2021-08-31
Food Science and Human Nutrition

Related Topics

Fact Sheet General Public

About this Publication

This document is FSHN17-8, one of a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date December 2017. Revised June 2021. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu for the currently supported version of this publication.

About the Authors

Agata Kowalewska, professor, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; and Edwin Makarevich, graduate; College of Agricultural and Life Sciences; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Contacts

  • Wendy Dahl