I can bet you that there is no fruit more familiar (aside from maybe an apple or an orange) to you than a banana. But sometimes, there are things that could be hiding away from us in plain sight! What you think you might know about the potassium-rich, portable, peely fruit is less than the half of it. Here’s some tidbits about a monkey’s favorite treat.
Bananas are actually berries, but you’d never know because the seeds that they have are practically invisible to the eye. A long time ago, they used to have seeds, but through extensive selective breeding, all that’s left are the little black specks near the center. Sometimes called a “leathery berry,” it is encased in a protective outer layer with little bundles of strings on the interior, called phloem. The phloem is what carries nutrients to all parts of the banana.
As a result of there being no seeds produced by the banana, the banana must be reproduced through the cultivation of the base of the banana plant, called the corm. The bananas we eat today are all genetically identical to one another. This makes them susceptible to being wiped out completely… meaning that our favorite fruit could one day go extinct! This is actually what happened in the 1950s. The most massively produced cultivar of banana at that time, the Gros Michel, disappeared from the markets and is very rare today because of Panama Disease which is caused by a fungus that attacks the root of the banana plant (source). While the bananas most common today are resistant to this fungus, other agents of disease such as TR4, Black Sigatoka, Banana Bunchy Top Virus, and Banana Bacterial Wilt pose a significant threat (source).
This is why the bananas you enjoy today are not the same ones that your grandparents probably ate. What you find in the grocery store today, the Cavendish banana, is surprisingly smaller and less aromatic and creamy than the robust Gros Michel. Ever tasted a piece of banana candy? The extract used to flavor it may taste unrecognizable to your palette. This is the flavor of a Gros Michel. If you’re like me, your first thought may be to assume that it’s because food scientists can’t seem to replicate the true banana flavor. It’s actually because the flavor was based off natural sources: a blend of chemical compounds such as isoamyl acetate and amyl acetate that are found in the Gros Michel!
It might surprise you to know that bananas are the most radioactive fruit. By containing hefty doses of potassium, naturally there are traces of a radioactive isotope within it known as potassium-40. Sometimes, the terms ‘banana equivalent dose’ (BED) or ‘banana units’ are used by scientists as a way to describe amounts of ionizing radiation exposure (source). For example, by eating one banana, you are receiving one banana unit of radiation exposure—which is infinitesimally small, so don’t worry about it.
Bananas are the world’s fourth most important food crop – with more uses than just for eating. The fruit can also be used to make wine and brew beer, and the leaves of the banana can be used like a plate, a piece of paper to write on, or as a way to wrap food. The fibers from banana stems can be repurposed to make things like ropes and mats. Banana stem fibers have also been used to fashion Japanese kimonos (source). The banana fruit has so many uses world wide. It’s eaten fried, baked, steamed, mashed into jam, as pancakes, dehydrated into chips, dried and ground into flour, or even just as is.
Bananas are picked when they’re green, and placed to ripen in special air-tight rooms that have artificially increased levels of ethylene gas concentration. 0.1% is sufficient enough to start the ripening process, and is responsible for the bright yellow color of your typical supermarket banana (source). It indirectly affects the flavor as well, through the stimulation of an enzyme called amylase. Amylase is an enzyme that converts starch to sugar—and the reason why yellow bananas are sweeter than greener ones, and brown, spotty bananas are the sweetest of them all. By this point, almost all of a banana’s starch will be converted to sugar. They’re also mushy at this point too—this is because ethylene also signals the production of pectinase. Pectinase is an enzyme that breaks down a complex carbohydrate called pectin that works as structural support between the cell walls in the banana (source). The breakdown of pectin turns a banana into a perfect candidate for a warm loaf of bread.
Well, that’s about it for today, folks. Don’t slip on a banana peel on your way out 🙂