A fruit that has spent its history travelling the globe, as it has won over culture after culture, bananas are the firm favourite in many fruit bowls the world over.
Originally native to Australasian and Indomalayan regions, travellers and conquerors have spread cultivation wherever they have gone – most notably Portuguese conquistadors, who brought them to the New World where they continue to flourish.
There is a great deal to say about this most highly prized fruit, from its surprising versatility to new threats to its very existence.
Read on to find out all about it all in my Banana 101.
What are bananas?
Bananas are edible fruits (botanically berries) that are produced by a range of large herbaceous flowering plants.
The fruit varies in size, colour and density, though all are usually elongated curved shapes. They are comprised of soft flesh covered in a rind which, whilst typically yellow, can also be green, red, purple or brown at full ripeness.
Globally, there is little by way of distinction between bananas and plantains. In some cuisines, bananas used in cooking predominantly savoury dishes may be called plantains to distinguish them from softer, sweeter dessert bananas – in particular those of the Cavendish group to which we will be returning our focus later in this article.
The fruits grow hanging in clusters from their plant’s top and almost all modern seedless varieties trace their lineage to one of two species- Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana.
Bananas of various types are grown in 135 countries today. The world’s largest producers are India and China, whose combined output accounts for close to 40% of the global stock.
Bananas: a brief history
The term banana encompasses both the fruit and the plants that produce them, lending them their common name. This can extend to other members of the Musa genus, such as the scarlet and pink bananas (Musa cocciena and Musa velutina, respectively.)
Musa species are native to Australasia and Indomalaya, with the first crops likely to have been domesticated in Papua New Guinea. Archeological and paleoenvironmental evidence drawn from Kuk Swamp in Papua New Guinea suggests that human cultivation in the region stretches back at least 7,000 years to 5,000 BCE, though this could possible go back even further.
Other species are thought to have been independently domesticated elsewhere in Southeast Asia at a later date.
There is evidence to suggest that banana cultivation occurred in Africa in the first millennium BCE, though there is debate as to exactly where this began. Evidence points to Cameroon or Madagascar as likely candidates.
The middle east may have also seen bananas at the onset of Islam: Islam’s rapid spread brought with it a great diffusion of knowledge and resources. Numerous references appear in poems and Hadiths beginning in the 9th century CE, with texts from Palestine and Egypt mentioning the fruit as early as the 10th century CE. From here, it was brought northwards into Muslim Iberia and hence into Europe.
Portuguese sailors brought bananas westward with them, introducing them to the Americas in the 16th century CE.
Types of banana
More than 500 types of bananas have been counted, although, of these, a slim minority are used commercially. Below are listed a few of the most commonly found ones that will be available for your kitchen:
Baby (Nino) Bananas/ Lady Finger Bananas: these bananas are short and stubby, averaging just three inches or so in length. They are a bright, vibrant yellow when ripe and deliver a sweet and creamy taste.
Burro/ Orinoco Bananas: these are another variety that are relatively stubby. They can also be a little square at the edges. When they ripen, they are soft with yellow skin and a tangy, almost citrus taste to their flesh.
Cavendish Bananas: these are the most common ones you will find in your local supermarket and will be important in our discussion on banana sustainability later on in this article. They are yellow, with a sweet and creamy flesh when ripe.
Blue Java (Ice Cream) Bananas: these bananas can grow up to seven inches in length and are usually quite chubby. The skin is silvery blue and a little blotchy, whilst the flesh is creamy both in colour and taste. Mashed and partially frozen, they make a rough and ready, very tasty alternative to dairy ice cream.
Manzano/ Apple Bananas: these are another short and chubby variety of banana. They have a flavour that carries something akin to notes of apple or strawberry and their skin ripens to black.
Red Bananas: you will find these little bananas at a lot of either large or specialist markets. They have purple or maroon skin when ripe and creamy, and a sweet flesh with a slightly pink or orange tinge.
Plantains: these are part of the same family as the banana, but are used more often like a savoury vegetable. They are large and have a higher starch content than other bananas, though they will often have the same colours.
Why are bananas curved?
By far one of their most distinctive features is the banana’s curved shape, so much so that this is often referred to as ‘banana shaped’ when describing other objects of similar design. But how and why have they evolved this way?
Banana plants produce leaves that develop into a pseudo stem and produce fruit via cell division. This bud then forms in the plant’s bottom portion and grows upwards through the pseudo stems centre. This bud pushes through the top of the plant, where its weight makes it change direction to point downwards, growing towards the ground.
The bananas themselves, growing from this, go through the unique process of geotropism: they turn towards the sun instead of continuing to grow downwards. The fruit curves upwards, giving it its trademark shape.
Why such a unique and involved process?
The banana originates from the rainforest’s middle layer, where sunlight is a scarce resource. Were the fruit to grow towards the small amount of sunlight available to it, it would end up going sideways! Given the weight of a bunch of bananas, this would cause the plant to overbalance and potentially fall over.
Curving the way they do allows bananas to grow towards the rainforest’s sunlight without damaging the banana plant.
Before we delve more deeply into the facts and figures surrounding bananas, let’s start off with a few quick fire facts:
- Bananas are one of the most popular fruits in the Western diet, owing in no small part to their delicious taste, versatility and many nutritional benefits.
- Banana plants are officially designated as herbs…
- … and the banana itself is officially classified as a berry.
- Bananas are considered a mood enhancer, as I’ll go into in greater detail below. It contains the amino acid tryptophan alongside vitamin B6 – these both help the body to produce serotonin, whose benefits I’ll explore later on. Bananas can also help to lower blood pressure and protect the heart due to their high potassium content and low sodium content.
- This potassium makes bananas a great pre workout snack. Potassium helps in maintaining nervous and muscular function during intense training.
- We mostly eat Cavendish bananas today (as mentioned above) which are different to what was mostly eaten up until the 1950s. Then, we mostly ate the Gros Michel variety, but these were completely wiped out by Panama disease. We face a similar potential issue now with the Cavendish, as I’ll go into in greater detail later today.
- Finally, did you know that human’s share about 50% of our DNA with bananas. That’s rather humbling, really…
One serving of banana (about 126 grams) will give you 110 calories, made up of 30 grams of starchy carbohydrates and a single gram of protein. They are naturally fat free.
In addition, they have quite an impressive micronutrient profile, giving a wide range of vitamins and minerals:
- Vitamin B6 – 0.5 mg
- Manganese – 0.3 mg
- Vitamin C – 9 mg
- Potassium – 450 mg (this is just below 10% of the RDI)
- Dietary Fiber – 3g
- Protein – 1 g
- Magnesium – 34 mg
- Folate – 25.0 mcg
- Riboflavin – 0.1 mg
- Niacin – 0.8 mg
- Vitamin A – 81 IU
- Iron – 0.3 mg
The health benefits of bananas
Bananas’ nutritional quirks bring with them a great many health benefits, some of which I have already hinted at.
The list of good things you can get from this fruit is backed up by increasingly sound scientific research and the jury is in: there are a great many benefits to regularly incorporating bananas into your dietary intake.
Below are a few of the main ones:
Blood pressure and heart health
Bananas are well known for their high potassium content (around 10% of your RDI – see above.) Healthy intake of potassium could be as beneficial to your blood pressure as low sodium due to its status as a vasodilator. (1)
There are several factors that make bananas good for your heart: their fibre, potassium and vitamins C and B6 are chief amongst them. Increasing potassium whilst decreasing sodium intake can aid in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease as well as helping to lower your blood pressure.
By some estimates, potassium helped people to decrease their risk of heart disease by nearly 50%.
There are some added extras with high potassium intake as well: it comes with a reduced risk of stroke, reduced risk of atrophy, preservation of bone mineral density and reduced risk of forming kidney stones.
A study conducted by the Imperial College of London showed that eating a banana every day helped to lower children’s risk of developing asthma by up to 34%. (2)
Regularly eating bananas in the first two years of an infant’s life, alongside other fruits like oranges, may help to reduce the risk posed by childhood leukemia.
Bananas are a great source of vitamin C, which helps to combat the formation of and hence damage done by free radicals. The kind of high fibre intake associated with eating fruits and vegetables like bananas is also associated with a decreased risk of colorectal cancer.
Overcoming the runs
Bananas give you the ‘B’ in BRAT- as in the BRAT diet. This is formed of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, and is fundamental in diarrhoea treatment. (3)
Electrolytes like potassium are lost in great quantities during diarrhoea bouts, leading to feelings of excessive fatigue and weakness. Bananas obviously help to fill this void.
Memory and mood
Bananas may be good at improving memory and mood. They contain tryptophan. This is a handy amino acid that may play a role in preserving memory and keeping your cheerful. (4)
Your body converts this tryptophan to serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that elevates your mood. Tryptophan also aids in inducing sleep.
Bananas additionally contain vitamin B6, which helps you to sleep well, and magnesium which keeps your muscles relaxed.
Bananas are fantastic for replenishing energy and electrolytes, hence their use in diarrhoea treatment. However, this also has sporting application. Athletes refuelling with water and bananas have exhibited proven, markedly better performance than those using sugary sports drinks.
Banana provides dopamine and serotonin, improving athletes’ antioxidant capacities and helping with oxidative stress.
Bananas are as good as carrots in this department: they can aid your vision. (5)
They contain small amounts of vitamin A which is vital for protecting your eyes, maintaining normal vision and improving vision at night – bananas literally help you to see in the dark.
Vitamin A contains compounds that preserve membranes around your eyes and, as with other fruits, bananas can also help to prevent macular degeneration, which is otherwise incurable.
Should you eat banana peel?
Many species of primate eat the whole banana and have done so for thousands of years or more. This includes the peel, as it is entirely edible and quite nutritious.
Though we don’t tend to do so in the west, certain indigenous peoples and Asian cultures include the banana’s peel in their cuisine – usually cooked in some form to a traditional recipe.
Banana peel is nowhere near as sweet and tasty as the flesh, so we usually just ditch it. However, it is rich in various nutrients. It is also a good source of carbohydrates, though these break down to simpler sugars as the peel blackens )these include fructose, sucrose and glucose).
There is also a fair amount of fibre to be had from the peel, as well as added amounts of the vitamins found in the flesh, such as vitamins B6 and B12, magnesium and, of course, potassium.
Although banana peel is completely edible raw, they are quite stringy and are considered to be somewhat of an acquired taste. There are a few ways around this, however. Waiting for a banana to ripen – or indeed to over-ripen – will make the skin thinner, softer and sweeter. It will be much easier and more pleasant to chew. Alternatively, you can cook it.
For basic cooking, simply boil the peel for around ten 10 minutes before eating. However, in many Asian countries, bananas are either cooked whole and unpeeled, or else the peel is fried until crispy.
Remember to clean your banana peels before eating them: commercial bananas will have been sprayed with various chemicals and may also have a waxy outer coating.
Bananas and radiation
To address a common concern – yes, bananas are radioactive. However, this doesn’t really matter as these radiation levels are so low. To put it into perspective, by some estimates you would have to eat 10 million bananas in one sitting in order to die from radiation poisoning.
Presumably, this is not going to happen.
Bananas and pregnancy
Pregnancy is a time to eat healthy, optimising your baby’s nutritional intake in order to make sure they get everything they need, and optimising your own to give you the strength and health to go through the most physically demanding period of your life.
Luckily, bananas have you covered. They provide you with energy and give your baby the vitamins and minerals so essential for its growth. In fact, they are so good that I put this list together of all the health benefits of eating bananas during pregnancy:
They boost haemoglobin
One of the most common causes of low haemoglobin levels is iron deficiency, and one of the groups most susceptible to anaemia through low haemoglobin levels are pregnant women.
Bananas help to raise haemoglobin levels in your body – they are high in iron. This reduces the risk of anaemia for everybody, but is most pertinent to pregnant women.
They relieve nausea during pregnancy
Most women who have been pregnant are painfully familiar with morning sickness. Bananas help to minimise feelings of nausea, and instances of vomiting, whilst also replacing many of the nutrients lost through sickness.
They help with the baby’s development
Bananas help to prevent folic acid deficiency. Folic acid deficiency can lead to various complications during pregnancy, not least the risk of the baby being born prematurely. It is also necessary for the baby’s brain and spinal cord development.
Bananas are also a good source of vitamin B6 and calcium.
Vitamin B6 is necessary for the baby’s central nervous system development. Regular inclusion of bananas into a pregnant woman’s diet in the first trimester is specifically recommended for this reason.
Calcium is necessary for the healthy development of the baby’s bones and the maintenance of a pregnant woman’s bones, as well as being necessary for regulation of the body’s muscular contractions.
With this in mind, it’s worth consulting your medical professional to see if dietary intake will be enough. For those who may be deficient, there are some fantastic plant-based calcium supplements available to get you back to where you should be.
If all this talk of bananas has made you hungry, don’t fret! Here are a few of my favorite recipes that involve the bendy fruit:
Vegan Banana Muffins
These banana muffins are a great recipe to try out for beginners to vegan baking as they are incredibly easy and yield great results – the banana acts as the binding that you would usually get from eggs, meaning that no special technique is required to give them their shape. They are lovely eaten warm or kept for tasty treats over a number of days.
Sugar Free Banana Cookies
These sugar free banana cookies are delicious and, as they only require four ingredients and basic baking know-how, they are also incredibly simple and easy to make.
Though they aren’t the sweetest ever, they are incredibly tasty – all the sweetness comes from the bananas’ natural sugars, giving them a depth that refined sugar often lacks. They are, of course, vegan, oil free and come out light and fluffy.
Vegan Banana Pulled Pork Sandwich
This is a recipe that has divided the internet in recent months – vegan pulled pork, made from cooked and shredded banana skins. It’s a firm favourite in my household. Brazilians and Venezuelans have been using banana skin in this way for years, though it is only just catching on in the West.
This vegan banana pulled pork sandwich is a tasty, healthy meal and helps you to use up all those leftover banana skins without seeing them go to waste.
Thumbs up all round, really.
How sustainable are bananas?
Up until the 1950s, the most commonly traded banana in the world was the Gros Michel. However, in the 1950s it was almost entirely wiped out by Panama disease – aka banana wilt. Panama disease is a fungus that all but disappeared the Gros Michel.
Because of this, banana growers turned to the Cavendish banana, a breed that was immune to Panama disease. It is smaller and less tasty than the Gros Michel, but was far fitter for mass consumption and global travel, and was able to grow in infected groves.
Practically all banana exports today are Cavendish bananas, clones of one original plant (from Chatsworth, England.) Twenty-five percent of home grown bananas consumed in India and nearly all those consumed in China are Cavendishes.
However, diseases have a habit of evolving with the times. As breeders have been putting their energy into cultivating Cavendish bananas, the Panama disease has been evolving into a new strain which is capable of doing to them what it did to the Gros Michel.
The new strain has so far destroyed 10,000 hectares of Cavendish growing space and is also affecting numerous other local breeds around the world, meaning that damage will not be limited to just one species as it was with the Gros Michel.
Experts have warned that numerous banana species could be wiped out unless change is made.
How can the banana be saved?
There are two things that need to be done if the impending banana crisis is to be averted. First, the epidemic needs to be contained.
However, this could be very hard indeed: though it may be possible to contain it to a certain degree with strict measures, there will never be any guarantee that Panama disease will not present itself elsewhere. Contaminated soil carried by boots or infected plants can spread it easily, and once it is out it will spread quickly.
There is no way to salvage production once your crop has been infected, and the potential for devastation once infection reaches them is near total.
The second solution is a fix to the main issue at hand: the ubiquitous nature of the Cavendish crop, the crop most susceptible to disease. We need to find both a new banana that is resistant to the disease and, to prevent the same issue repeating itself, one that is genetically diverse.
Bananas 101… Done!
That’s us done with bananas for the moment.
Today, I’ve hopefully gone through everything you need to know about one of the world’s favourite fruits. Its many health benefits are gradually being opened up and/or proven as research into its nutritional pros continues, marking it as one of our greatest sources of potassium as well as a contributor to a great many other facets of a modern healthy diet.
Most people like them either raw and simple or chopped up into cereal or yoghurt, whilst others have found new and exciting ways to incorporate bananas into baking and, surprisingly, even into savoury dishes. However you decide to enjoy your bananas, why don’t you let us know what works best for you?
Don’t forget to share in the comments down below.
About The Author:
James Dixon lives, works, and trains in Glasgow, Scotland.
He is an active freelance health and fitness writer, fully qualified personal trainer and veggie athlete. He holds several black belts and is currently training in both strength/barbell athletics and kickboxing. He has had an interest in animal welfare all his life, having been raised vegetarian, and has trained numerous athletes on plant based diets to great effect in recent years. Writing on vegetarian and vegan lifestyles and training is a passion for him.
Save to Pinterest!
- Adda Bjarnadottir, MS, RDN (Ice) | 11 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Bananas | https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-benefits-of-bananas
- Dole Team | One-A-Day Keeps Wheezing At Bay In Preliminary Research | https://www.dole.com/en/blog/nutrition/bananas-vs-asthma
- Dan Brennan, MD | The BRAT Diet | https://www.webmd.com/children/brat-diet
- Noreen Samad, Aqsa Muneer, Najeeb Ullah, Aqal Zaman, M Mazhar Ayaz, Ijaz Ahmad | Banana fruit pulp and peel involved in antianxiety and antidepressant effects while invigorate memory performance in male mice: Possible role of potential antioxidants | https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28655697/
- Bel Marra Health | Surprising food helps improve vision | https://www.belmarrahealth.com/surprising-food-helps-improve-vision-banana/