Nutrition and Fitness with Randa

Guest Post: Yes! We Have No Bananas

Every now and then I plan on featuring posts from experts in their field that pertain to health, hope and healing. I love this article written by my brother-in-law about bananas. What great insight into this yellow fruit that we take for granted on a regular basis as it sits or hangs on our kitchen counters!

Jef Dinkler is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the History department. His specialization is the history of food with an emphasis on the early modern diet. His interests also include early modern science and medicine, the origin of recipes, molecular gastronomy and changing social ideas about food. Jef is married to the amazing and wonderful Sarah, has two children (Zachary and Claire), one dog, three cats, five fish and six chickens.

Yes! We Have No Bananas*

Chances are, you probably have bananas in your home right now. In almost any supermarket, bananas are readily available and plentiful. From a nutritional standpoint, bananas are excellent sources of vitamin B6, vitamin C, potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. One of the first foods we feed to infants is mashed bananas. Those recovering from illness are often put on a “BRAT” diet consisting of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Most people would consider them a wholly unremarkable and un-mysterious fruit.

According to the Oxford Companion to Food, there are at least five hundred varieties of banana, which meet a variety of dietary needs. When we say “banana,” the image that probably comes to mind is of a fruit purchased when slightly green, eaten when yellow and converted to banana bread when it begins to blacken. The more accurate name for this varietal is the Cavendish (or even Dwarf Cavendish) banana. The Cavendish and other types of sweet bananas (typically called “eating bananas”) are suitable for eating without much alteration. Other types of bananas such as the plantain function much like a potato as a primary source of starch. The Cavendish is the result of many years of selective human manipulation to produce a fruit with a satisfying flavor that will also survive the rigors of international shipping.

The story of why the Cavendish found its way into most North American homes highlights one of the principal conundrums of modern agriculture. In the early 20th century, a blight known as Panama disease began to wipe out the principal eating banana in the United States and Europe, the Gros Michel. Panama disease was so thorough and devastating that the Gros Michel banana ceased to be a viable export crop by the 1950s. The Cavendish became the replacement for the Gros Michel largely due to its resistance to Panama disease, although popular consensus rated the Cavendish a poor substitute in both flavor and texture. Interestingly, every single Cavendish banana is genetically identical, which provides a desirable level of predictability with regard to growing conditions. This homogeneity is also something of a curse, as in the last few years Panama disease has mutated and begun decimating Cavendish crops.

What solutions are available for the continued survival of bananas? Well, we must be careful not to overstate the problem. Bananas on the whole are in no danger of immediate extinction, although we might see the last of the Cavendish banana in our lifetime. Increased genetic diversity, through field cross-breeding or genetic modification may provide an escape for the Cavendish or even a revival for the Gros Michel. Genetic modification (defined here as the direct manipulation of the genes in a laboratory) is not uncontroversial, although the eventual results are theoretically more predictable than standard cross-breeding. Alternately, we may see the introduction of yet another variety of banana into our supermarket consciousness. History would then repeat itself as our grandchildren read tales of the disappearance of the Cavendish from the global fruit bowl.

*The title of this blog post refers to a song from the 1922 Broadway musical “Make It Snappy.” The title of the song refers to banana shortages due to Panama disease.

Banana Tips

  • Place bananas in shaded area rather than direct sunlight.
  • Do not put bananas in the fridge as they will go black in addition to losing their nutritional value.
  • Slice and freeze bananas when they get overripe and use it for smoothies later on.
  • To ripen an avocado, put it with a ripe banana into a brown paper bag.
  • And lastly, though I do not not know this from experience (honest!), bananas supposedly are great for hangovers. (Can someone verify this?)
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