Bananas: Naturally Sweet and Simple Fruit Enjoyed Around the Globe

A bunch of bananas.
Photo by Sara Remington

The word “banana,” credited to the African Wolof language, stems from the Arabic word banan, meaning finger. Originating in Southeast Asia, the banana planted new roots in the Middle East, West Africa and Europe, and eventually arrived in the Americas by way of Spanish and Portuguese explorers. The United States is now the second-largest importer of bananas, behind only the European Union.

To enjoy a banana, you need only peel the fruit and take a bite, but its trip from farm to table is more complex — and controversial. Bananas require a tropical climate for growth; 94 percent of America’s bananas come from Central America and South America. Green bananas are harvested on farms, then placed into a room where ethylene gas is pumped in and out to enhance the ripening process. When the color begins to “break,” meaning a yellow hue is faintly seen, bananas are packaged and shipped to retailers. The remainder of the ripening continues naturally en route.

The high demand for bananas has drawn environmental concerns. Although thousands of varieties exist, the familiar crescent-shaped Cavendish banana accounts for 95 percent of the world’s exports. Its popularity emerged after a fungus epidemic wiped out competing varieties in the 1950s. However, the lack of variety leaves the crop vulnerable to new fungal strains, such as Fusarium oxysporum, also known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4), which has damaged Asian crops and continues to spread. Additionally, to meet supply needs and earn a profit, farmers are widely practicing monocropping, which depletes the soil’s nutrients and makes bananas susceptible to pests.

In the Kitchen: The starch and simple sugars in bananas are ideal as a nutrient-dense replacement for granulated sugar. Mashing or creaming overripe bananas creates a batter base for breads, pancakes, pudding and cheesecakes. Frozen bananas can be used in smoothies or to make an ice cream alternative.

Dehydrated banana flakes, traditionally used in clinical settings, have a six-month shelf-life, making them an excellent pantry staple. A smoothie, yogurt, baking mix or baby food can be enhanced with a spoonful of the flakes. The dehydration process creates a concentrated product, so take caution with portions. At about 170 calories per half cup, banana flakes are an energy-dense food.

Bananas are equally enjoyed in sweet and savory dishes. People living in tropical regions have long embraced bananas’ starchier relative, the plantain. The flesh of a banana most closely resembles a plantain in the unripe stage, when its durable texture can withstand high cooking temperatures. After slicing into chunks, pan-fry unripe banana with fresh rosemary or toss into a spicy chicken curry for a unique flavor.

In the Clinic: A medium-sized banana has approximately 105 calories, but its nutrition profile may vary depending on ripeness and size. The complex starch to simple sugar ratio shifts by the day, hour and even minute. Over time, starch degradation causes fruit to ripen, therefore increasing the availability of glucose, maltose and soluble sugars. This makes a ripe banana’s energy more readily available to the body.

Athletes adore bananas for good reason: They are easily digestible and provide nutrients that help replenish energy stores lost during strenuous activity. Just one medium banana contains 10 percent of the Daily Value for potassium, 11 percent for vitamin C and 25 percent for vitamin B6. Research shows consuming a banana with water before exercise may be as effective at supporting performance as a sports drink.

Bananas also contain the prebiotic compound fructooligosaccharide, which nourishes flora in the gut and may help boost the immune system. Because bananas are a good source of dietary fiber, they are touted as beneficial foods for good digestive health. Soluble fiber helps trap excess fluid in the gastrointestinal tract to help form solid stool. Clinicians have added banana flakes and other sources of fiber to the tube feedings of critically ill adult patients to help decrease diarrhea.

In Quantity: In foodservice, bananas are available in various sizes and counts, from a 20-pound case of petite-size to a 50-pound case of premium and organic bananas. The fruit commonly is used by restaurants and foodservice establishments in beverages including smoothies, as well as desserts, baked goods and as standalone snacks.

It is recommended that bananas be stored in a cool, dry area that is well ventilated.

Check out the recipes that accompanied this Savor feature: Banana Fritters and Mini Bananas Foster Pudding Cups.


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Bethany Oxender
Bethany Oxender, MS, RDN, is a clinical dietitian based in Ann Arbor, MI, specializing in weight management. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram and read her blog, Bethany Grey.