More than you ever possibly wanted to know about bananas.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Barring any extenuating issues like allergies or just a plain old dislike, If you're trying to lose weight and/or eat heathier and bananas are not part of your diet, you're shooting yourself in the foot. Methaphorically speaking of course. You of course would realize if you really shot yourself in the foot, the pain would be excruciating. Wouldn't if be weird if everyone went around shooting their feet when they realized their mistakes? ANYWAY......

Nutritionally speaking, bananas are fantastic. One 9-inch banana contains: 602mg of potassium, 2g protein, 6g fiber, 36g of carbs, 2g sodium, 123 iu vitamin A, and lesser amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folic acid, vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. All wrapped up in 140 calorie container. Bananas are also excellent in treating or alleviating the following medical conditions: anemia, high blood pressure, constipation, depression, heartburn, mosquito bites (haven't personally tried this one yet), PMS, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), smoking cessation, stress, stroke, and ulcers.

For the budget minded, bananas are a staple. Consistently cheap, you can buy at least one with the change you find in your couch. A week's worth can be had for around a dollar. As I've mentioned in twitters before, a banana and milk smoothie for breakfast is delicious and incredibly filling.

Have you ever really thought about bananas before? I know I haven't until recently. They come to your local market from thousands of miles away, transported in cooled containers, and they go bad within days. How can they possibly be so cheap. How?!?!

Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World has the explanation:

Americans eat as many bananas as apples and oranges combined, which is especially amazing when you consider that not so long ago, bananas were virtually unknown here. They became a staple only after the men who in the late 19th century founded the United Fruit Company (today’s Chiquita) figured out how to get bananas to American tables quickly — by clearing rainforest in Latin America, building railroads and communication networks and inventing refrigeration techniques to control ripening. The banana barons also marketed their product in ways that had never occurred to farmers or grocers before, by offering discount coupons, writing jingles and placing bananas in schoolbooks and on picture postcards. They even hired doctors to convince mothers that bananas were good for children.

Once bananas had become widely popular, the companies kept costs low by exercising iron-fisted control over the Latin American countries where the fruit was grown. Workers could not be allowed such basic rights as health care, decent wages or the right to congregate. (In 1929, Colombian troops shot down banana workers and their families who were gathered in a town square after church.) Governments could not be anything but utterly pliable. Over and over, banana companies, aided by the American military, intervened whenever there was a chance that any “banana republic” might end its cooperation. (In 1954, United Fruit helped arrange the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Guatemala.) Labor is still cheap in these countries, and growers still resort to heavy-handed tactics.

The final piece of the banana pricing equation is genetics. Unlike apple and orange growers, banana importers sell only a single variety of their fruit, the Cavendish. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas — most of them in Africa and Asia — but except for an occasional exotic, the Cavendish is the only banana we see in our markets. It is the only kind that is shipped and eaten everywhere from Beijing to Berlin, Moscow to Minneapolis.

By sticking to this single variety, the banana industry ensures that all the bananas in a shipment ripen at the same rate, creating huge economies of scale. The Cavendish is the fruit equivalent of a fast-food hamburger: efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable.

But there’s a difference between a banana and a Big Mac: The banana is a living organism. It can get sick, and since bananas all come from the same gene pool, a virulent enough malady could wipe out the world’s commercial banana crop in a matter of years.

This has happened before. Our great-grandparents grew up eating not the Cavendish but the Gros Michel banana, a variety that everyone agreed was tastier. But starting in the early 1900s, banana plantations were invaded by a fungus called Panama disease and vanished one by one. Forest would be cleared for new banana fields, and healthy fruit would grow there for a while, but eventually succumb.

By 1960, the Gros Michel was essentially extinct and the banana industry nearly bankrupt. It was saved at the last minute by the Cavendish, a Chinese variety that had been considered something close to junk: inferior in taste, easy to bruise (and therefore hard to ship) and too small to appeal to consumers. But it did resist the blight.

Over the past decade, however, a new, more virulent strain of Panama disease has begun to spread across the world, and this time the Cavendish is not immune. The fungus is expected to reach Latin America in 5 to 10 years, maybe 20. The big banana companies have been slow to finance efforts to find either a cure for the fungus or a banana that resists it. Nor has enough been done to aid efforts to diversify the world’s banana crop by preserving little-known varieties of the fruit that grow in Africa and Asia.

Enjoy the banana while it lasts. Is your brain stuffed with banana knowledge now? Try the banana quiz. You can also read more about Dan's book on his website.


Karl said...

They also warned customers not to refrigerate bananas. There's no safety reason for that -- indeed, unrefrigerated bananas go bad sooner. But what a convenient way to get people to buy more bananas.