Gone Bananas? Why I Don’t Eat America’s Favorite Fruit

by | Aug 15, 2012

Photo by Crystl

No, I don’t eat bananas. Not really anyway.

It’s not that I don’t like the taste, I actually really enjoy them (particularly with ice cream). Nor do I actively avoid bananas—I’d eat homemade banana cream pie any day of the week, and in Thailand I noshed on the small red finger bananas sold at the local markets. But I don’t buy bananas in the US, and given a choice I’d almost always opt for something else.

While this probably sounds strange to some of you, if you stop and think about the way I live and shop it’s easy to see how this idiosyncratic habit evolved.

I do the majority of my grocery shopping (~80%) at the farmers market, and as you might expect bananas aren’t common in San Francisco. The one or two brick and mortar stores I shop at for the rest of my food here in the city are nothing like your typical supermarkets. Like the farmers market these stores carry local, seasonal food almost exclusively (did I mention I love San Francisco?), and if they carry bananas I’ve never noticed them.

So the main reason I don’t buy bananas is logistical: they don’t exist here.

Honestly for me that’s enough of a reason to focus on the rest of the produce the season has to offer—there’s always more beautiful fruit than I could possibly eat (even in the winter), why do I need bananas too? But when you pause and reflect on why this makes me strange, you start to realize that there are deeper issues with our most popular fruit that make them less than an ideal snack.

The vast majority of bananas sold in the US are grown in Latin Amercia by a handful of countries including Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. In these places bananas are grown year round, are harvested while unripe, then shipped in special refrigerated compartments until they reach their destination weeks later. The fruit is then exposed to ethylene gas which causes it to ripen and turn their characteristic bright yellow (a different shade than their natural dull yellow when tree-ripened).

Though not genetically modified (yet), all commercial bananas are genetically identical clones grown in monocultures. While this makes the product extremely consistent, it also leaves it vulnerable to disease since cross-breeding cannot confer any protective benefit. Before 1960, the most prevalent commercial banana variety was ‘Gros Michel.’ However, these bananas were wiped out by the fungal Panama disease, forcing farmers to adopt a new variety.

Now all commercial bananas are the Cavendish variety, which was chosen for shelf life and shipping rather than flavor. Cavendish bananas are not immune to infection, however. An extremely virulent strain of Panama disease known as TR4 has threatened Cavendish bananas in Southeast Asia and Australia, and scientists believe TR4 will likely reach Latin American banana plantations soon. There is no variety currently considered a viable replacement for Cavendish, and bananas may be gone from supermarket shelves in our lifetimes. As I hinted above, companies are working to genetically modify the bananas to be resistant to TR4.

Even worse than monoculture ag destroying a commodity that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods, the large banana companies in Latin America (Dole and Chiquita) have a history of mind-boggling corruption. The term “banana republic” describes corrupt countries where the political system favors large agriculture corporations over public welfare. I had trouble finding information on the current state of the banana business and its politics, but there is little indication that things have improved.

But what about nutrition? Am I missing out? Bananas are famously high in potassium, but so are all the green leafy vegetables that make up a huge portion of my diet. Commercial bananas are indeed a good source of several nutrients, however they are also one of the most calorie dense fruits due to their high sugar content. There’s nothing in bananas that you can’t get from other foods, and lower calorie fruits may be a better choice if you eat them often or are watching your weight.

Despite these concerns, there are plenty of valid reasons to continue eating bananas. Just don’t let anyone call you crazy if you choose to skip them.

What are your thoughts on bananas? B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

Originally published August 1, 2011.

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113 Responses to “Gone Bananas? Why I Don’t Eat America’s Favorite Fruit”

  1. Rick says:

    That is why I grow my own bananas. these are 100% natural, no chemicals, no nothing; just nature. i never liked the way the bananas looked at the market.

  2. Son N. says:

    I really like this blog and I read it from time to time. However, this article is written with so many inaccurate data that I’m actually a little bit shocked. Are you just writing because you need to write something? You do remember that you’re of a scientist right?

  3. John Simms says:

    I eat organic bananas. I love ’em. I hope they don’t disappear. I figure buying bananas may show people down south that growing and selling legitimate food is better than growing and selling illegal drugs.

  4. Jim says:

    The higher calorie count can be helpful if a person is on a raw vegan diet looking for calories I would imagine. I really like bananas but I agree that local is nice, and winter can be an issue.

  5. Lucy says:

    Yummmy article! 🙂 Does anyone know if it is safe(even relatively)to eat the peel of organic bananas? I enjoy including the peel (left on when slicing) in my baby-banana snacks.

  6. Food Scientist says:

    This is a half-baked anti-capitalist hippy diatribe mixed with a very large load of pseudoscience. Virtually every claim made is incorrect.

  7. walkerny says:

    How many of these tiresome feel-good “buy local and save the environment” advocates drive a car made in Korea, Japan, Germany or Sweden. A car from Detroit, Tennessee or Ohio has a much smaller ‘carbon footprint’ to ship it. How many have Dutch, German, Belgian or Mexican beers, Aussie or French wine, or FIJI, Italian or French water in the fridge. What’s the carbon footprint to ship those over domestically available products? Hypocritical (yet oh so fashionable)Nonsense.

  8. John says:

    People please understand organic farming is not a valid large scale course for farming practices for the modern age. These “vilified” pesticides/chemicals have reduce the land required for farming, have increased the amount produced, and has made otherwise expensive foods cheep. “Organic” food is simply a mental luxury bought and sold to the “socially” conscious person to project their status. It is a business plan and you have fallen for it.

  9. walkerny says:

    Sorry John, you are running up against feel good, emotions based, pseudo science. How can you win? these same people have “buy local” on the bumper of their Kia. They feel like they are “doing something” for the environment. The same idiots think vaccinations cause any number of illnesses, based on what some dippy celebrity says. They decry fracking yet can’t even give a basic technical explanation of how it is done. First world idiots.

  10. walkerny says:

    WEBMD also does a good job debunking all the “cleansing” and detox diets out there. Not that eating healthy and more natural is bad, it is the best for you, but if you do so, your liver & kidney will “detox” just fine, without gimmicks.

  11. Rick says:

    I just recently read the history about Bananas and realized they went extinct in the early 60’s. Living in the 60’s as a child I did not know this and I also read that all Bananas are GMO because they all became extinct. I totally understand your thoughts and am very concerned about the Bananas that we are eating and what they are using to protect them from pests and disease!!! I also understand that people need to make a living and also read that people working in Banana plants are prone to life threatening diseases!! These are huge concerns to me and want to know if you have read or understand these issues?

    Thanks for your time,

    • Ken Sturmer says:

      I don’t know where you read this, but you are quite mistaken. All bananas did not become extinct in the sixties. There are many, many varieties of Banana. The fact is the Banana that was popular up until that time, did become extinct due to a blight. That was when the Cavendish the Banana we eat today was introduced.

      To those who are afraid that Bananas are GMO’s are also totally wrong. Evidently some are confused by the term “clone”. ALL Bananas are clones! They always have been! That is how they reproduce. The plant sends out pups, which grow into new Banana plants, the old plant dies every year. Many plants are clones. Your pineapple, in the Bromeliad family does the same thing. All Bromeliads send out pups, and then die. There are many other plants that do this. Somebody really needs to learn Horticulture, and understand how many fruits and vegetables are grown. Yes there are GMO plants out there, but they are a recent thing. All corn grown in the US today is GMO. There are Tomatoes that are very popular, and also GMO. The Bananas you buy in the grocery, unfortunately ARE NOT! You are welcome to still not eat them. But I would not eat anything in that case, as cloning, hybridization, grafting have given us most of our known vegetables and fruits. Instead of reading false information, get out there and do some real research. You might find it interesting! But then you have to have a brain, and some new age foodies simply do not.

  12. Great article!

    I as well, keep away from bananas. For economical reasons as well as the glycemic load it can bring consuming it often. Although, I’ll admit, it is a great treat to have once in awhile for those who do enjoy it. 😉

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  13. Jake says:

    I just picked some bananas growing in a neighbor’s front yard. They’re short and fat and look nothing like bananas in the grocery store. I’m in Orange County, CA.

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