Hybrid origin; see text
A banana is a tree-like plant (though strictly a herb) of the genus Musa in the family Musaceae, closely related to plantains. The term banana is also applied to the elongated fruit (technically a false berry), which grows (in edible species and varieties) in hanging clusters, several to many fruits to a tier (called a hand), many tiers to a bunch. The total of hanging clusters is called a 'stem' in the commercial world. The banana was originally cultivated by pre-historic peoples in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific.
In 2002, over 12 million tonnes of bananas were traded worldwide, with Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Philippines exporting over 1 million tonnes of bananas each.
The banana is mentioned for the first time in history in Buddhist texts in 600 BC. Alexander the Great discovered the taste of the banana in the valleys of India in 327 BC. The existence of an organized banana plantation could be found in China back in the year 200 AD. In 650, Islamic conquerors brought the banana to Palestine. Arab merchants eventually spread bananas over much of Africa.
In 1502, Portuguese colonists started the first banana plantations in the Caribbean and in Central America.
Bananas come in a variety of sizes and colors. The ripe fruit is easily peeled and eaten raw or cooked. Depending upon variety and ripeness, the flesh can be starchy to sweet, and firm to mushy. Unripe or 'green' plantains and bananas are used in cooking and are the staple starch of some tropical populations.
While the original bananas contained rather large seeds, seedless and triploid varieties have been selected for human consumption. These are propagated asexually from offshoots of the plant. These offshoots are called followers or suckers in the trade, and one or two of them are the source for the next stem of fruit the plant produces, because the plant is normally cut down at the time of harvest. A stem of bananas can weigh from 30-50 kg, and they are usually carried on the shoulder.
The commercial sweet varieties most commonly eaten in temperate countries (species Musa acuminata or the hybrid Musa x paradisiaca, a cultigen) are imported in large quantities from the tropics, where they are popular in part because they are available fresh year-round. In global commerce, by far the most important of these banana cultivars is 'Cavendish', which accounts for the vast bulk of bananas exported outside of the tropics.
Banana chips are a snack produced from bananas. Bananas have also been used in the making of jam. However unlike other fruits, bananas have only recently been used to prepare juice and squashes. Despite an 85 percent water content, it has historically been difficult to extract juice from the fruit because when compressed, a banana simply turns to pulp. In 2004, scientists at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), India, patented a technique for extracting juice by treating banana pulp in a reaction vessel for four to six hours
In addition to the fruits, the flower of the banana plant (also known as banana blossom or banana heart) is used in South-East Asian and Kerala (India) cooking, either served raw with dips or cooked in soups and curries. The tender core of the banana plant's trunk is also used, notably in Burmese and Kerala (India) cooking.
Banana pests and diseases
Bananas are subject to several pests and diseases, which can reduce crop yields. The limited genetic diversity of cultivated bananas (which is due to their asexual reproduction) make them vulnerable to diseases such as Black Sigatoka, and new strains of Panama disease, caused by the fungus Fusarium.
In 2003 Belgian plant pathologist Emile Frison of the International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain stated that the dominant commercial banana cultivar 'Cavendish' may become extinct within 10 years. The magazine New Scientist added, "We may see the extinction of the banana, currently a lifesaver for hungry and impoverished Africans and the most popular product on the world's supermarket shelves". The predecessor to 'Cavendish', the cultivar 'Gros Michel', had already suffered a similar fate.
However, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 'Cavendish' bananas make up about 10% of the total world banana crop, with small-scale farmers continuing to grow numerous other varieties which retain far greater genetic diversity, but which do not enter significantly into world trade, being consumed locally.
Nutritional value and dietary effects
Bananas contain about 74% water, 23% carbohydrates, 1% proteins, 0.5% fat, and 2.6% fiber (these values vary between different banana cultivars, degree of ripeness and growing conditions). In an unripe banana the carbohydrates are mostly starches. In the process of ripenening the starches are converted to sugars; a fully ripe banana has only 1-2% starch.
Besides being a good source of energy, banana is a rich source of potassium, and hence is highly recommended for patients suffering from high blood pressure.
It is claimed that bananas have beneficial effect in the treatment of intestinal disorders, including diarrhoea (diarrhea). Bananas are unusual in that they work for constipation too. They contain mucilaginous bulking substances and are easy to digest. Other fruit which may also be good for intestinal conditions include mangoes, figs, pineapple, and papaya.
Bananas are among the most widely consumed fruits in the world. However, many banana farmers receive a low price for their produce. This has led to bananas being available as a 'fair trade' item in some countries. The banana has an extensive trade history beginning with the founding of the United Fruit Company at the end of the nineteenth century. For much of the 20th century, bananas and coffee dominated the export economies of Central America. In the 1930s, bananas and coffee made up as much as 75 percent of the region's exports. As late as 1960, the two crops accounted for 67 percent of the exports from the region. Though the two were grown in similar regions, they tended not to be distributed together. The United Fruit Company based its business almost entirely on the banana trade, as the coffee trade proved too difficult for them to control. The term "banana republic" has been broadly applied to the countries in the region, but from a strict economic perspective only Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama were actual "banana republics" – countries with economies dominated by the banana trade.
(Source of statistics: Skidmore, T., Smith, P., (2001) Modern Latin America (5th edition). New York: Oxford Unversity Press)
Attitudes toward bananas
Bananas are one of the most popular fruits among all peoples of all origins. Despite this, they are seen by some white supremacists as "monkey food", and have been used for racist insults, such as throwing bananas at sports players of African descent (e.g.  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/tv_and_radio/world_football/2399629.stm)). Bananas are also humorously used as a phallic symbol (a metaphor for the human penis) due to similarities in size and shape.
The depiction of a person slipping on a banana peel has been a staple of physical comedy for generations. A 1906 comedy record produced by Edison Records features a popular character of the time, "Cal Stewart" claiming to describe his own such incident, saying:
- I don't think much of a man what throws a bananer peelin' on the sidewalk, and I don't think much of a bananer what throws a man on the sidewalk, neether. ... my foot hit that bananer peelin' and I went up in the air, and cum down ker-plunk, and fer about a minnit I seen all the stars what stronomy tells about, and some that haint been discovered yit. Wall jist as I wuz pickin' myself up a little boy cum runnin' cross the street and he sed 'Oh mister, won't you please do that agin, my mother didn't see you do it.'
In the 1940s and 1950s, an urban legend involved tarantulas hidden among bunches of bananas. It should be noted that, while tarantulas do not hide in bananas, certain other large exotic spiders have been known to (see Brazilian wandering spider). These spiders are quite venomous and highly aggressive.
It is also an urban legend that the dried skin of banana fruit is hallucinogenic when smoked. Unlike many urban legends, the origin of this one has been traced. It dates back to an article in the student newspaper Berkeley Barb in March 1967, which got the story from the singer Country Joe McDonald. This was brought to attention once more in the late 1980s, when the satiric punk group Dead Milkmen published an album concerning the effects of smoking banana peels. Even the FDA investigated.
As with the spider legend, this legend is also not entirely without merit. The darkening of ripening bananas, proceeding from yellow, to brown, to black, is mainly due to large amounts of serotonin (an important human neurotransmitter), which is produced from tryptophan in banana peels. While this property would seem to implicate bananas as a natural antidepressant, such is not the case.
Upon ingestion, serotonin is immediately broken down by enzymes in the stomach (particularly monoamine oxidase). Due to its high melting point (213° C), serotonin is unsuitable for smoking and decomposes into toxic gases (carbon and nitrogen oxides) during combustion. Additionally, it cannot cross the blood-brain barrier.
Home remedyThe inner surface of a banana peel may be rubbed on a poison ivy rash to abate symptoms.
- FAO. Bananas Commodity notes: Final results of the 2003 season (http://www.fao.org/es/esc/en/20953/20987/highlight_28367en.html), 2004
- International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain (INIBAP) (http://www.inibap.org/)
- Banana (http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/banana.html) by Julia Morton, Fruits of Warm Climates, pp. 29–46.
- Further details (http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/news/2003/13120-en.html) from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
- Banana Fruit Facts (http://www.crfg.org/pubs/ff/banana.html) California Rare Fruit Growers Organization.