HAVANA, Dec. 17th Did you know the largest of the Caribbean’s sugar islands, Cuba, is also celebrated for another traditional sweetener?
Turns out that honey is a leading agricultural activity. (The island has 170,000 hives!) This sweet nectar is the country’s fourth most valuable export, ahead of sugar and coffee, according to the UN. In Cuba, honey is prized for its culinary, medicinal, and spiritual value. When you order coffee here in Havana, honey is often presented alongside sugar.
This practice goes back to the struggle for independence in the 1860s when sugar production decreased so people used honey as a sweetener, and the Cuban people have long recognized the health benefits of honey compared to sugar.
We’ve known about the healing properties of honey for years.
Since ancient times honey has embodied the food-as-medicine concept. The first reference to honey was carved into a clay tablet in Sumer over 4,000 years ago for its use as an ointment and medicine. Honey contains vitamin C, B complex vitamins, and key minerals such as iron, calcium, and magnesium.
While many island specialties are indigenous to the Americas, such as the papaya and black beans, the honey bee was an import from the old world. Honey bees were first introduced to the island in 1764, near Havana, and the lush tropical vegetation provided a fantastic source of nectar.
It’s filled with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Honey derives antioxidants from botanical sources, creating a potent synergy between phenolics, glutathione, vitamin C, and many other antioxidants. Interestingly, the flower source of the nectar and the variety of the honey is reported to affect antioxidant levels.
Darker honey has been found to have higher antioxidant activity, and researchers in Italy determined Cuban honey has high antioxidant capacity with key phenolic, carotenoid, and flavonoid concentrations. Cuban honey was also able to reduce oxidative stress in lab experiments, according to Italian researchers.
Honey has been shown to reduce markers for inflammation, for example COX-2. It contains many powerful anti-inflammatory compounds called flavonoids, such as quercitin. We discuss the benefits of flavonoids—and how to get them from food sources—in detail in my book The Allergy Solution.
Honey is a staple in traditional and natural medicine.
There is a well-established practice of traditional and natural medicine on the island. In the way Cuba’s exuberant music is enriched by mixed ethnic influences, natural remedies draw on indigenous, African, Spanish, French-Haitian, and Asian traditions.
Local herbal and natural remedies, including honey, have been studied and encouraged. Honey is a popular base for various herbal formulas.
While researching Cuban health practices, I visited pharmacies in Havana and noticed that they feature both prescription medicines and natural products. Usually they have glass bottles of herbal formulas on display, as well as a sign with descriptions of the products.
Honey has also been used in the hospital setting on the island. A study from Cira Garcia, a hospital I visited several times, found that honey could foster septic wound healing. In addition to honey, Cuban propolis, the resin of plant buds collected by bees, has been extensively studied and found to have antibacterial, antifungal, and antiprotozoal properties.