Bananas are the most beloved fruit in the United States. We eat them for breakfast, as a midday snack, and with dessert. We consume more bananas than apples and oranges combined, a whopping 28 pounds (or roughly 50 bananas) per person every year. While bananas can be found in nearly every grocery, convenience, and corner store, we rarely think about what it takes to get those bananas to the shelf. The story of the banana’s evolution takes us around the world and back again, weaving a complex story of trade wars, genetics, and politics. Today, this popular fruit is actually in danger of disappearing from our grocery stores forever, so grab a bunch while you still can.
Bananas first appeared in Papua New Guinea over 7,000 years ago. More than 1,000 varieties have been found around the world since then, with some as small as your pinky finger and others filled with large, hard seeds. A few durable and tasty varieties were brought to South and Central America during the period of westward colonial expansion. One variety in particular, known as Gros Michel (“Big Mike”), made its way into U.S. markets in the early 1800s as banana production expanded throughout Central America.
Bananas first came to the U.S. through Boston’s shipping ports, brought up from banana plantations in Jamaica. The first commercial banana company was founded by a Bostonian grocer - it was initially called Boston Fruit but is now known as Chiquita. Around this same time, as Amercans’ taste for bananas grew, a competitor was emerging in New Orleans. What was formerly called Standard Fruit is now known as Dole.
FUN FACT: The banana got its name from the Arabic word "banan," which means “finger."
Chiquita and Dole have spent decades trying to control the banana market in Central America by investing in transportation infrastructure, influencing political outcomes, researching new banana varieties, and gaining ownership of every stage of the banana’s journey. Both companies used to own a majority of the farms they sourced from, but they now mostly buy bananas from independent farmers all over the world based on who offers the lowest price. Today, Chiquita and Dole supply almost all of the bananas in the U.S., most of which still come from Central America.
Throughout the early to mid-1900s, bananas were evolving from a luxury only found in wealthy households to a commonplace fruit found in nearly every store in the country. But behind the scenes, the disastrous Panama Disease was busy wiping out the Gros Michel banana variety, with no cure or treatment in sight. If not for the discovery of the Cavendish variety in China after World War II, the banana might have disappeared forever. The Cavendish is basically the only variety of banana Americans eat today, but its future is just as uncertain as its predecessor.
THE BANANA PROBLEM
Bananas are grown in tropical regions around the world, with over 130 different countries growing some variety of banana well-suited to their environment. In 2017, over 250 billion pounds of bananas were produced around the world, with a quarter being grown in India. The reason bananas are so susceptible to disease, and therefore greatly at risk of disappearing, is because every banana we eat is a genetic clone of the others. Genetic diversity helps protect crops from disease, so the lack of diversity puts thousands of acres of identical bananas at a heightened risk. The same disease that wiped out Gros Michel in the 1900s is now ravaging Cavendish crops in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, and Pakistan as it makes its way around the world.
Without any seeds, the Cavendish variety of bananas we eat in the U.S. relies on human assistance to reproduce (similar to vanilla). Researchers have been working for decades to come up with a new variety that is both resistant to Panama Disease and carries other desirable characteristics like transportability, flavor, and texture. Such a variety has not yet been successfully bred and it is unlikely one will be grown without the use of GMO technology.
PLANTATION TO PANTRY
Despite what you might think, the banana plant is not a tree. In fact, bananas aren’t even fruits -- they are technically berries! The banana plant is the world’s largest herb, growing a “false trunk” 10 to 20 feet high and shooting rhizomes through the soil like roots that pop up around the original tree to form new plants. Each “tree” grows one bunch of 50 to 150 bananas each harvest cycle and can produce 3 to 4 harvests in its lifetime. Once the banana plant is done producing bananas, it is chopped down to a stump, which signals the rhizomes to pop up through the soil and form new plants within 6 months.
The banana plant produces one large purplish red, football-sized bud, above which smaller flowers bloom before becoming the fruit. To go from first flower to ready-to-cut green bananas takes 6 months. The bananas remain green as long as they are attached to the tree but begin to ripen as soon as they are cut. Cutting the bananas off the tree triggers the release of natural ethylene gas in the fruit, which reduces its acidity, decreases the pectin content, breaks down the chlorophyll, and transforms starches into sugar. After the bananas are harvested by hand, they are allowed to naturally ripen and are then air dried and ground into a paste to be used in our Banana Bread Protein Bars.
A BANANA A DAY
Before harvest, the banana is only 1% fructose. By the time it is browning in your kitchen, it is nearly 80% fructose. Naturally sweet and fruity, bananas are also an excellent source of potassium, which helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels. They are also high in fiber, making them an important food to incorporate into a heart-healthy diet.
OUR BANANA PASTE
The organic bananas we use in our Banana Bread Protein Bars come from Ecuador, the world’s largest exporter of bananas. But organic bananas are much harder to grow and produce far lower yields than conventional bananas because they need quarantined fields, and must be grown at higher elevations.
The complex combination of nature and nurture that goes into growing food is why we are dedicated to making food that celebrates the raw ingredients. We use banana paste in our Protein Bar instead of banana flavoring or “natural flavors” because it highlights the authentic flavors of the fruit without mimicking it in an artificial way. Considering all the hurdles the humble banana has gone through to make it to the shelves of our grocery stores, we believe it is an ingredient worth celebrating.
This information was last updated 02/05/20.