Mad About Science:

Bananas

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

I don’t always write about huge, profound, galaxy-moving revelations. Sometimes I just like to make you reexamine stuff in your daily life, or learn about something that seemed mundane, but was really interesting.

Sometimes I just throw that all out the window and go for a completely random topic.

This is one of those days.

Which?

Take your pick.

A banana.

Gosh, that’s a funny word. No matter how you say it, it sounds funny. Buh-na-na. Boo-na-nuh. Buh-nah-nuh.

It’s a silly yellow fruit that Americans just can’t get enough of. Did you know that botanically, it’s considered a berry? Every time you drink a banana smoothie, you’re technically eating berries.

Ever wonder where your banana came from? Your first thought is probably Central or South America.

You’d be right, partially.

Between Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia, these three countries produce about 21.16 million tons of bananas per year. That’s pretty cool.

And then there’s India, producing 29.82 million tons of bananas per year alone. That’s 65,741,768,400 pounds of bananas per year. Presuming bananas are an even 50 cents a pound, that’s 33 billion dollars of revenue per year from just bananas.

That’s a whole lot of green for a whole lot of yellow.

So what are the health benefits of the humble banana?

It doesn’t have a whole lot to it. It’s mostly starch, though a single banana packs 20 percent of your daily Vitamins B6 and C. The rest is basically processed as potassium and sugar, giving an average of 105 calories per banana. While definitely not detrimental to your health, a diet of pure bananas would be a pretty terrible idea.

Ever wonder why they turn bright yellow?

It turns out it’s a very similar process to leaves turning yellow during the fall. As the banana ripens (due to having been, you know, severed from its nutrient-giving body by a machete), the chlorophyll is expended and the peel is starting to deteriorate, infusing sugar into the fruit inside. The yellow color itself comes from a pigment called a xanthophyll, which is the same pigment that makes egg yolks appear yellow.

Bananas don’t only come in shades of yellow and green. Our favorite fruit has breeds that showcase deep purples, reds and browns as well, they just aren’t as widely cultivated or consumed in the Western world. Travel to most markets throughout Asia and you’d be able to find rainbows of colorful bananas. Another breed in the banana family we consider exotic can be found in grocery stores just a few steps away from our favorite treat. Plantains. If you’ve ever tried to eat a yellow plantain then spit it out with a look of disgust, you shouldn’t banish the thought of eating one ever again. If I learned something from my time in the produce section (mostly by asking “What in the hell is that thing?”), it’s that the best time to eat a plantain is when the peel is very, very brown.

That’s gross, Brenden.

The browning isn’t rot like you’d see in meat. It’s called sugar spotting. It’s what happens when the other nutrients in the peel start turning into sugar and infusing the fruit with sweetness. When it comes to plantains, they’re best used in cooking rather than eaten straight out of the peel like regular bananas, but everyone has their own unique taste.

Unfortunately for the yellow bananas we buy at the store, excessive sugar spotting makes it unpalatable. Bacteria like sugar even more than we do, and once the amount of sugar gets too high the bacteria begin to break the banana down and have a field day, one of the reasons that overripe bananas taste miserable and get all mushy.

A little known fact on our side of the hemisphere will bring a whole new level of joy to many readers. Bananas apparently make really good alcohol. In the Philippines and parts of Africa, where bananas are natively grown, they are mashed up and distilled with water. The brewers then add yeast and more sugar and let the magic of fermentation go wild. Unfortunately, the finished product isn’t cautionary yellow; It’s clear just like vodka or moonshine.

Besides, when was the last time someone handed you a glass full of transparent-yellow liquid and told you in good faith to take a drink?

During my stint in departmental retail, there was one item that was consistently at the top of the sales charts. In fact, it sold so much, and in so much volume, that even the electronics department was consistently trailing at #2 to #5 (except when our crew rocked it on Black Friday.).

You guessed it: Bananas.

Bananas are a powerful impulse item. They’re almost guaranteed to sell fully no matter how many you put out. While I worked produce, the only, and I mean only time we ever threw out bananas were if something terrible happened like a box falling off the pallet into a vat of spiders or if clowns were using them to make each other slip through the department.

Neither of those things happened, ever. At least not while I was there.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that last year, 1.4 million bananas in the UK went wasted.

You don’t have to be bipedal to enjoy bananas. They’re actually one of the few safe items for our four-legged friends of the dog world to enjoy. I mean, don’t feed them to them all of the time or anything, but they can be a fun snack, especially if you put peanut butter on them. One of the perks of being an item made almost exclusively of sugar!

Hopefully you learned something about bananas today. And before you send mail to me about which way to peel a banana: No, monkeys don’t peel them backwards because there are spiders in the peel. There aren’t. Peel the things whatever way you want to as long as you end up eating the fruit inside.

Heck, I’ve seen people Incredible Hulk those bad boys open from the center.

It was awesome.

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