Know Your Fruits and Veggies™: Bananas and Plantains

Bananas are one of the top 5 fruits and veggies consumed by American’s, so most folks have eaten a banana but may not know their history.

Recent archaeological suggests that banana cultivation goes back to 5000 – 8000 BCE in New Guinea. It is likely, however, that bananas were brought to Madagascar and the East African coast during around 400 BCE. Many wild banana species as well as cultivars still exist in extraordinary diversity in New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and the Philippines.

Food - pink bananaSome examples include:

  • Fuzzy bananas whose skins are bubblegum pink
  • Green-and-white striped bananas with pulp the color of orange sherbet
  • Bananas that, when cooked, taste like strawberries.
  • The Double Mahoi plant can produce two bunches at once.
  • The Chinese Go San Heong banana translates to “You can smell it from the next mountain”.
  • The fingers on one banana plant grow fused
  • Another produces bunches of a thousand fingers, each only an inch long.

In the 1500 and 1600s, Portuguese colonists started banana plantations in the Atlantic Islands, Brazil, and western Africa. North Americans began consuming bananas on a small scale at very high prices shortly after the Civil War, though it was only in the 1880s that it became more widespread. As late as the late 1800s bananas were not widely known or consumed in Europe, although they were available.

Since the development of refrigeration and fast shipping, bananas have become widely available. Today, bananas grow in most tropical and subtropical regions with the main commercial producers including Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador and Brazil.

Description

A banana is an edible fruit produced by several kinds of large herbaceous flowering plants. Bananas are sweet with firm and creamy flesh, prepackaged in easy to transport, nature supplied yellow jackets, and is available for harvest throughout the year.

Bananas are a very good source of vitamin B6 and a good source of manganese, vitamin C, potassium, dietary fiber, potassium, biotin, and copper.

The cluster of fruits contain anywhere from 50 to 150 bananas with individual fruits grouped in bunches, known as “hands,” containing 10 to 25 bananas.

Bananas abound in hundreds of edible varieties that fall under two distinct species: the sweet banana and the plantain banana.

Sweet bananas vary in size and color. Yes color — even though we think of sweet bananas as having yellow skins, they can also have red, pink, purple and black tones when ripe. Their flavor and texture range with some varieties being sweet while others have starchier characteristics. In the United States, the most familiar varieties are Big Michael, Martinique and Cavendish.

In most parts of the world there is no distinction between bananas and plantains. In Europe and North America however, the term banana usually refers to soft, sweet, dessert bananas. The Musa cultivars with firmer, starchier fruit are called plantains. In other regions of the world, many more kinds of banana are grown and eaten, so this distinction is not used.

Chiquita, a banana producer and distributor provides American consumers with product information claiming “a plantain is not a banana”. The primary differences are that plantains are starchier and less sweet; are eaten cooked rather than raw; have thicker skin, which may be green, yellow or black; and they can be used at any stage of ripeness.

Plantains are used in various stews and curries or cooked, baked or mashed in much the same way as potatoes.

Plantain bananas are usually cooked and considered more like a vegetable due to their starchier qualities; they have a higher beta-carotene concentration than most sweet bananas.

In summary, in commerce in Europe and the Americas (although not in small-scale cultivation), it is possible to distinguish between “bananas”, which are eaten raw, and “plantains”, which are cooked. In other regions of the world, particularly India, Southeast Asia and the islands of the Pacific, there are many more kinds of banana and the two-fold distinction is not useful and not made in local languages. Plantains are one of many kinds of cooking bananas, which are not always distinct from dessert bananas.

Bananas are naturally slightly radioactive, more so than most other fruits, because of their potassium content and the small amounts of the isotope potassium-40 found in naturally occurring potassium.

Ripening

Export bananas are picked green, and ripen in special rooms upon arrival in the destination country. These rooms are air-tight and filled with ethylene gas to induce ripening. The vivid yellow color normally associated with supermarket bananas is a side effect of the artificial ripening process. Flavor and texture are also affected by ripening temperature. Bananas are refrigerated to 56 and 59 °F during transport. At lower temperatures, ripening permanently stalls, and the bananas turn gray as cell walls break down. The skin of ripe bananas quickly blackens in a refrigerator, although the fruit inside remains unaffected.

The flavor and texture of tree-ripened bananas is considered superior to any type of green-picked fruit, and reduces shelf life to only 7–10 days.

Bananas can be ordered by the retailer “un-gassed” (i.e. not treated with ethylene), and may arrive at the supermarket fully green.

While ripening, bananas naturally produce ethylene gas, which acts as a plant hormone and indirectly affects the flavor. Ethylene stimulates the formation of an enzyme that turns starch into sugar. The greener, less ripe bananas contain higher levels of starch and have a “starchier” taste. Yellow bananas taste sweeter due to higher sugar concentrations. In addition, ethylene signals the production of pectinase, an enzyme which breaks down the pectin between the cells of the banana, causing the banana to soften as it ripens.

Cool fact – A 2008 study reported that ripe bananas fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light. This property is attributed to the degrading of chlorophyll leading to the accumulation of a fluorescent product in the skin of the fruit and leaves. Green bananas do not fluoresce. The study suggested that this allows animals which can see light in the ultraviolet spectrum to more easily detect ripened bananas.

Ripe bananas can be held for a few days at home. If bananas are too green, they can be put in a brown paper bag with an apple or tomato overnight to speed up the ripening process.

How to Select and Store

Since bananas are picked off the tree while they’re still green, it’s not unusual to see them this color in the store. Base your choice of bananas depending upon when you want to consume them. Bananas with more green coloration will take longer to ripen than those more yellow in hue and/or with brown spots.

Bananas should be firm, but not too hard, bright in appearance, and free from bruises or other injuries. Their stems and tips should be intact. The size of the banana does not affect its quality, so simply choose the size that best meets your needs.

While bananas look resilient, they’re actually very fragile and care should be taken in their storage. They should be left to ripen at room temperature and should not be subjected to overly hot or cold temperatures. Unripe bananas should not be placed in the refrigerator as this will interrupt the ripening process to such an extent that it will not be able to resume even if the bananas are returned to room temperature.

If you need to hasten the ripening process, you can place bananas in a paper bag or wrap them in newspaper, adding an apple to accelerate the process. Ripe bananas that will not be consumed for a few days can be placed in the refrigerator. While their peel may darken, the flesh will not be affected. For maximum flavor when consuming refrigerated bananas, remove them from the refrigerator and allow them to come back to room temperature.

For the most antioxidants, eat fully ripened fruit:

Bananas can also be frozen and will keep for about 2 months. Either puree them before freezing or simply remove the peel and wrap the bananas in plastic wrap. To prevent discoloration, add some lemon juice before freezing.

How to Enjoy

Depending upon cultivar and ripeness, the flesh can vary in taste from starchy to sweet, and texture from firm to mushy. Both the skin and inner part can be eaten raw or cooked.

Bananas are a staple starch for many tropical populations. Bananas feature prominently in Philippine and Southern Indian cuisine. They may be steamed and added to curries, fried into chips or fried in batter –  known in the United Kingdom and United States as banana fritters.

Bananas are eaten raw, deep fried, baked in their skin, or steamed in glutinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Bananas can be made into jam. Banana pancakes are popular amongst backpackers and other travelers in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Banana chips are a snack produced from sliced dehydrated or fried banana or plantain, which have a dark brown color and an intense banana taste. Dried bananas are also ground to make banana flour.

Banana hearts are used as a vegetable in South Asian and Southeast Asian cuisine, either raw or steamed with dips or cooked in soups, curries and fried foods. The flavor resembles that of artichoke. As with artichokes, both the fleshy part of the bracts and the heart are edible.

Banana leaves are large, flexible, and waterproof. They are often used as ecologically friendly disposable food containers or as “plates” in South Asia and several Southeast Asian countries. In other cuisines the banana leaf is employed in cooking method; the banana leaf packages containing food ingredients and spices are cooked on steam, in boiled water or grilled on charcoal and add a subtle flavor.

In addition to being eaten raw, bananas are a wonderful addition to a variety of recipes from salads to baked goods.

A few quick serving ideas: