© Denzil Green
A banana is the starchy fruit of a tropical herb plant. They can be eaten unripe as a vegetable, or, let ripen and sweeten and then be eaten as a fruit.
The bananas we eat today are from domesticated, sterile plants. In the wild, in their native India and Malaysia, they have hard seeds that range in length from ¼ to ½ inch (5 mm to 1 cm.)
What we call a “banana tree” is in fact an herb — an herb whose leaves can grow up to 3 ½ metres long (4 yards). The stalk of the plant generally grows up to 6 metres tall (20 feet). A banana plant can produce multiple stalks, but generally farmers trim them back to 2 or 3 stalks (see banana shoots.) Each stalk will take about 18 months from first growth to flower. Once flowered, it can pollinate itself — it doesn’t rely on insects to cross-pollinate it. Each stalk will produce 1 bunch (aka “comb” or “hand”) of bananas, then die. The corm part of the plant underground, though, remains alive, and other stalks can grow up from this.
Banana plants are best grown under a canopy of trees. They do need a lot of sun for the energy to produce the fruit, but if the fruit is exposed directly to full, hot sun, it may turn black before it ripens.
Banana plants reproduce by seed or by sending out underground shoots (or “suckers”) off their corms. Cultivated banana plants, though, won’t produce seeds: they are sterile, in order to avoid fruit with hard seeds in them. To propagate them, farmers cut the shoots and plant them where they want the plants to grow.
A fungus named Mycosphaerella fijiensis is a pest that plagues banana plants, reducing yields by up to 50%. Banana plants have to be sprayed constantly to control it:
“Banana plants are sprayed up to 40 times a year to kill a fungus that causes black sigatoka disease, which infects banana leaves and can lead to the death of the plant.” University of Cambridge. Alternatives to plant biotechnology. Module 1.7, Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology. Future Learn. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/food-production-agricultural-technology-plant-biotechnology/3/steps/715044
Varieties of bananas
There are over 500 kinds of bananas. Not all varieties of bananas are white inside, even though that’s all we see at the supermarkets, usually the “Cavendish” cultivar. A variety called “Island Banana”, for instance, is pink inside, and it has a denser texture that what we are used to. Banana skins can be green, yellow or red.
Only half of the world’s bananas are eaten ripened and sweet as a fruit; the other half are eaten when they are unripened and the starch has yet to convert to sugar. These unripened versions are used as a starchy vegetable as one would potatoes — or as one would use plantain, to which bananas are closely related. These are called “plantain bananas” or platanos or, confusingly sometimes, just plantains.  Gibson, Arthur C. “Bananas and Plantains” in Writeups and illustrations of economically important plants. Retrieved April 2009 from http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Musa/index.html “Today, bananas are still distinguished from plantains based largely on consumption of raw versus cooked fruits, but we know that they are not necessarily two different species. All banana and plantain cultivars derive from two main species, (Musa acuminata Colla and Musa balbisiana Colla.)” Riger, Mark. “Chapter 5, Banana and Plantain” in “Introduction to fruit crops.” Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press. 2006. Page 75. They require cooking, usually roasting, baking, boiling or frying. They are also dried and ground into flour.
Bananas are shipped hard and unripe to reduce handling and transport damage, and then ripened artificially with ethylene gas on arrival. In fact, if left to ripe on the tree, they will never develop their best flavour. The starch only converts to sugar after picking, causing the sugar content to increase from 2% to 20%. The yellower the skin, the sweeter the fruit (at least in the varieties we are sold, which develop a yellow skin.)
Banana seeds and strings
Many people think bananas are seedless. They are for all intents and purposes as we receive them, but it’s not completely true. In commercial bananas, you will see small black specks. These are ovules, the vestiges of seeds that would have developed, had the banana plants not been sterile. Wild bananas left to their own devices develop larger and harder seeds with less flesh around them. Kole, Chittaranjan. Genome Mapping and Molecular Breeding in Plants, Vol. 4: Fruits and Nuts. New York: Springer, 2007. Page 284.
The ‘stringy bits’ under the skin of the banana are known as “phloem” bundles. [Ed: note phloem (pronounced “FLO-em”), not phlegm.] It is through these ‘strings’ that nutrients such as sucrose, water, and photoassimilates enter the inside of the fruit. The banana stores the sugar as carbohydrates at first and then, towards maturity, converts some of the starch back into sugar. Most people don’t like the texture of the strings, and discard them with the skin. If you peel a banana from the bottom up, the strings will come off with the skin. Brian James Atwell, Paul E. Kriedemann, Colin G. N. Turnbull. Plants in action: adaptation in nature, performance in cultivation. Palgrave Macmillan Australia, 1999. Page 357.
When buying bananas, avoid any that have split skins. If you don’t want to eat them the same day, it’s okay to get those that still have a bit of green on the skin, as they will ripen at home over the next day or two on your kitchen table or counter. Bananas with black patches on them aren’t “bad”; they’re just overripe, and you might prefer them in a banana bread more than you would to eat them out of hand.
Bananas, like apples and avocados, will start turning brown the millisecond they are peeled. Dip pieces in an acidic juice such as lemon, orange or pineapple, or mash with some juice.
To make a baby food, mash ripe bananas with orange juice. The orange juice (better for infants than lemon juice) will stop the bananas from turning brown. You could also mash in strawberries, peas, etc. Then freeze in small containers, and thaw completely before using.
Use overripe bananas for mashing into baked goods; use slightly underripe bananas for cooking where you want the shape to come through, as they will hold their shape better if slightly underripe.
Bananas are rich in carbohydrate. They provide a good mix of sugars which the body absorbs at different rates, giving a long-lasting energy boost to the body. High content of Vitamins C, B6, B2, B1, and folate. Low in fat and sodium. Useful for anyone on a low-fat, low-sodium, cholesterol free diet.
Bananas are high in potassium which can help keep blood pressure low. In fact, bananas even contain a radioactive isotope of potassium (potassium-40). But this is not a danger to us: “It would take an ingestion of at least a thousand bananas [at one sitting] to result in an exposure of 10 mrem”, which is equal to that from a chest x-ray.
Can that radiation build up in our body? No. Your body maintains the amount of potassium in it at a constant level, through a process called “homeostatic control”. “Some potassium is always taken in via the diet, and some is always excreted, meaning that there is no buildup of radioactive potassium.” Schwarcz, Joe. Is it true that bananas are radioactive? McGill Office for Science and Society. 15 March 2008. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/you-asked/it-true-banana-radioactive
Unripe bananas are rich in resistant starch, which is gradually lost during the ripening process.
It’s a myth, according to a United States Food and Drug Administration press release as far back as 26 May 1967, that you can get high from smoking banana peels. They trapped 3 weeks worth of smoke from banana peels in a machine, and analysed it, and found no hallucinogens. There’s been no word on whether researchers felt this was a good or bad finding.
Per 100 g (3 ½ oz), peeled, plain, mashed banana: 95 calories
1 pound bananas = 450 g = 3 medium bananas = 2 cups sliced = 1 ¾ cup mashed
3 medium bananas = 1 cup mashed = 9 oz / 250 g
1 medium banana = 1 cup peeled, sliced = 5 oz / 140 g
1 pound dried sliced bananas = 450 g = 4 – 4 ½ cups dried
1 cup peeled, thinly sliced banana, loosely packed = 200 g (7 oz)
3 pounds bananas, with skin on = 2 ½ lbs, peeled
Bananas suffer cell damage and the release of browning and other compounds when cold, which is why their skin turns black in the refrigerator. But this does not damage the fruit inside.
Bananas will ripen at room temperature. Once they are ripe, to stop them from going on to spoil right away, you can put them in the refrigerator if you don’t mind what will happen to the skins. The skins will turn brown below 13.3 C, because temperatures lower than that damage the membranes in it: the damage releases enzymes, which turn the skin brown.  O’Hare, Mick. Food science and food myths: James Bond may have been onto something. London: Daily Telegraph. 5 October 2010. The flesh inside will stay white for up to three days; after that, it will start turning brown, too.
You can freeze bananas for use later in cooking. First mash or purée ripe bananas with a little lemon juice or orange juice (use about 1 teaspoon per banana.) The citrus juice will help prevent the banana from turning brown which does no harm, but is unsightly. Freeze in small portions so that it is easier to retrieve and defrost what you need. Can be used in cakes, breads, for baby food, etc (for baby food, you may want to use orange juice rather than lemon).
Or, you can freeze them whole. That’s right, right in their skins. Bundle them into a freezer baggy or package them in plastic wrap and tin foil, and freeze. Use them later for a baked good such as banana bread.
The earliest archaeological records of people eating wild bananas may be from a cave in Sri Lanka, dating back to 10,000 BC or 9,000 BC. The earliest archaeological record of cultivation may be from the highlands of Papua New Guinea, dating back 5,000 BC to 4,500 BC.
The earliest written reference to bananas mentions that Nearchus, a general of Alexander the Great, saw bananas and sugar cane in India in 327 BC.
Bananas were unknown to the Romans, though Pliny in his Natural History wrote of their existence, calling them “pala.”
They were grown in the south of China from 200 AD as a rare, exotic fruit. Bananas arrived Africa around 500 AD carried by traders from India, and in the Middle East and North Africa by 700 AD carried by Muslim traders.
11th and 12th century Arabic manuscripts make a few mentions of how to eat bananas: ‘To eat it with sugar and honey helps to make good use of it. Make sure that the banana is ripe and thoroughly peeled and drink some perfumed wine afterwards’ (Taqwim al-Sihha of Ibn Butlan.)
From West Africa, the Portuguese brought bananas to the Canary Islands. They arrived in South and Central America in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In 1870, a man named Lorenzo D. Baker was bringing his ship “Telegraph” back from Jamaica to Boston empty. He agreed to take back with him a shipment of bananas. They arrived in Boston in reasonable condition and sold well.
Commercial importation into England started in 1878, coming first from Madeira and a few years later from the Canary Islands. In 1896, another businessman (named “Minor C. Keith”) ran imports for 3 years from Costa Rica, but so many of the bananas arrived in unsellable condition that he didn’t pursue the venture further. Only in 1901, did regular, large scale importation start, coming from Jamaica, made possibly by steamships of the Imperial Direct Line with refrigerated ships.
People in Europe and North America had to be taught what to do with Bananas. The growing popularity of them in North America was the foundation for what became the United Fruit Company. Bananas, along with oranges, provided North Americans with a fruit that was available at their markets during the winter months.
By 1910, the trade in bananas was 1 million tons. By 1930, 2.3 million tons. By 1990, 9 million tons.
Until 1935, Jamaica was the world’s leading producer of bananas.
The banana trade was impacted by WWII. The shipping fleet necessary for it had to be rebuilt in the 1950s.
In 1968, United Brands was formed.
In Western Europe, banana consumption was 700,000 tons in 1950, and 3,820,000 tons in 1990.
In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated that just 7 million tons of that year’s world production of 98 million tons of bananas entered the commercial market. Plant researcher Chittaranjan Kole surmises from this that bananas are therefore clearly more important as local food sources than as commercial crops.  Baker, Tim. Crop Protection Research Unit, UK Department of Agriculture. Banana seeds. Plantbio Mailing List. 2 June 2008. Retrieved August 2008 from http://iubio.bio.indiana.edu/biomail/listinfo/plantbio (Note that the FAO’s estimates of the banana trade differ somewhat from those supplied by trade organizations.)
The Cavendish cultivar emerged in Vietnam, and became popular in the 1950s. Prior to that, the popular cultivar, back to the early 1800s, had been one called “Gros Michel” (“Big Michael”.) Gros Michel crops were attacked by a fungus called the Panama Disease, forcing growers to switch. Some people who ate bananas prior to the Cavendish cultivar still think that the Gros Michel cultivar had more flavour. Because all Cavendish crops are genetically identical, plant experts expect it too to be hit one day by a disease they cannot control. Efforts are underway to select its replacement. Koeppel, Dan. Can This Fruit Be Saved? New York: Popular Science Magazine. June 2005.
In 2009, Walmart in America sold more bananas than any other single item. The Popularity Issue. Business Week Magazine. 15 August 2010.
Literature & Lore
In Tennessee, it has been against the law since 1911 to drop banana peels on the street.
The jingle for the Chiquita Banana song was written in 1944 by a song-writing team led by a Robert Foreman. The original singer was not Carmen Miranda, as many might guess, but rather Patti Clayton. In fact, Carmen Miranda never recorded the song. In 1945, Elsa Miranda from Puerto Rico took over in 1945 from Patti Clayton, and it was she that appeared in the commercials and made guest appearances in movies. Carmen Miranda’s headdresses, however, were the inspiration for the cartoon banana lady that Chiquita used in its advertising.
The Chiquita Banana song was one of the most successful commercial songs of all time, and as often as the Chiquita company wrote it to keep up with the times, it was parodied just as much. At the peak of its airtime play, it was heard over 350 times a day across America.
I’m Chiquita Banana, and I’ve come to say
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way.
And when they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue,
Bananas taste the best, and are the best for you.
You can put them in a salad. You can put them in a pie – aye.
Anyway you want to eat them it’s impossible to beat them.
But bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator.
So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.
In October 2008, “phloem bundles” shot to the top of search queries in Google, when TV game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” contestant Mike Zeigler got asked what they were for his $100,000 question.
Our word “banana” comes from a West African word, “banema.”
California Rare Fruit Growers, Inc. Fruit Facts, Volume 1: Banana. Retrieved March 2007 from http://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/banana.html.
Leung, Wency. That’s bananas! The potential demise of the world’s most popular fruit . Toronto: The Globe and Mail. 9 August 2011.
|↑1||University of Cambridge. Alternatives to plant biotechnology. Module 1.7, Improving Food Production with Agricultural Technology and Plant Biotechnology. Future Learn. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/food-production-agricultural-technology-plant-biotechnology/3/steps/715044|
|↑2||Gibson, Arthur C. “Bananas and Plantains” in Writeups and illustrations of economically important plants. Retrieved April 2009 from http://www.botgard.ucla.edu/html/botanytextbooks/economicbotany/Musa/index.html|
|↑3||“Today, bananas are still distinguished from plantains based largely on consumption of raw versus cooked fruits, but we know that they are not necessarily two different species. All banana and plantain cultivars derive from two main species, (Musa acuminata Colla and Musa balbisiana Colla.)” Riger, Mark. “Chapter 5, Banana and Plantain” in “Introduction to fruit crops.” Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press. 2006. Page 75.|
|↑4||Kole, Chittaranjan. Genome Mapping and Molecular Breeding in Plants, Vol. 4: Fruits and Nuts. New York: Springer, 2007. Page 284.|
|↑5||Brian James Atwell, Paul E. Kriedemann, Colin G. N. Turnbull. Plants in action: adaptation in nature, performance in cultivation. Palgrave Macmillan Australia, 1999. Page 357.|
|↑6||Schwarcz, Joe. Is it true that bananas are radioactive? McGill Office for Science and Society. 15 March 2008. Accessed August 2020 at https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/you-asked/it-true-banana-radioactive|
|↑7||O’Hare, Mick. Food science and food myths: James Bond may have been onto something. London: Daily Telegraph. 5 October 2010.|
|↑8||Baker, Tim. Crop Protection Research Unit, UK Department of Agriculture. Banana seeds. Plantbio Mailing List. 2 June 2008. Retrieved August 2008 from http://iubio.bio.indiana.edu/biomail/listinfo/plantbio|
|↑9||Koeppel, Dan. Can This Fruit Be Saved? New York: Popular Science Magazine. June 2005.|
|↑10||The Popularity Issue. Business Week Magazine. 15 August 2010.|