How a Famine in Cuba Led to Food Innovation

From Cuba's "Special Period" came a really special kind of steak...

For decades in the last century, this island country and the Soviet Union were buddies. Cuba heavily relied on the Soviet government... to the point that roughly 20% of the island country's gross national product between 1986 and 1990 was courtesy of Soviet subsidies.

But in December 1991, the economic aid and trading came to a screeching halt when the Soviet Union collapsed... thrusting Cuba into nearly a decade of economic crisis.

It was called the "Special Period."

Without fossil fuels from the Soviet Union, Cuban industries declined across the board... including agriculture. Extreme food shortages caused a famine. Adults even lost up to a quarter of their body weight.

The dairy and meat industries suffered horribly since the production equipment had no juice to run on.

So Cubans who had a hankering for meat had to get creative... for example, by making grapefruit "steak."

Bistec de Toronja was supposedly born because of the Special Period.

This dish only uses the grapefruit's pith – the tough, gummy, white layer below the peel. It's the bitter-tasting stuff that you desperately try to avoid scooping up with bits of the sweet and sour pink pulp in your morning snack.

But, in the depths of a food crisis, Cubans were resourceful and repurposed the pith into their version of a country-fried steak.

They would cut chunks of the pith (with pulp and peel removed)... boil the cutlets until they turned light pink to remove some of the bitter taste... dip them in batter... pan fry... and, voila, steak.

Grapefruit pith is, indeed, edible. It's a great source of soluble dietary fiber like pectin. And we know eating lots of soluble fiber is great for controlling your blood sugar and lowering your "bad" cholesterol numbers.

(Retirement Millionaire subscribers might recall that I recently explained how the real enemy of your heart isn't cholesterol... it's something else. And cholesterol is just one of the actors in its sinister play. You can subscribe here to read last month's issue.)

Well, according to a January 2024 study, the soluble fiber in a grapefruit pith happens to have a prebiotic that's food for the "good" bacteria, or probiotics, in our gut.

Researchers ran in vitro studies and found that the prebiotic compound led to an increase in production of short-chain fatty acids, or SCFAs. SCFAs are important little molecules that have a huge number of benefits like helping your immune system function, regulating your blood pressure, keeping your gut-wall cells strong, and more.

The pith isn't the only beneficial part of a citrus fruit. An April 2024 study found that orange peels contain a compound that could protect your ticker...

University of Florida researchers studied orange-peel extract and found a compound called feruloylputrescine.

Some gut bacteria give off a compound called trimethylamine N-oxide ("TMAO") which scientists think could lead to cardiovascular disease. But with this study, researchers found that the feruloylputrescine in the peel could basically limit the production of TMAO.

The citrus peel we usually toss out also comes packed with other healthy properties like vitamin C (even more than the pulp), free-radical-fighting antioxidants, and fiber.

Sure, you might occasionally grate some of it onto a dish if a recipe calls for it and then chuck the remainder out.

Next time, grate the whole uncut (and hopefully washed) orange peel. On a baking sheet or big plate, form little mounds of the zest. Freeze... and you've got ready-to-use dollops of zest to add a punch of flavor – and phytonutrients. And the best part is, it lasts for months. I love using it whenever I want to add a touch of brightness and flavor to my marinade. Try it with lemons, limes, and grapefruits.

And the next time you're enjoying a halved grapefruit, don't be afraid to dig in a little deeper with your spoon. (Or try making your own pith steak!)

What We're Reading (and Watching)...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
June 11, 2024