Native to New Guinea, bananas prefer tropical climates and can be grown year round. In terms of produce, the biggest distinction is between bananas and plantains, both of which belong to the same genus (Musa) and come in a range of cultivars, or varieties. Bananas are generally eaten raw or as part of a dessert or baked good. Plantains are a staple crop, culinary distinct due to their higher starch content, predisposing them to being cooked and fried as part of meals or snacks.
Wild bananas were foraged and farmed before Europeans encountered them, though their modern cultivars are a direct result of the Age of Sail. Most varieties of bananas widely sold today are hybrids of two species: Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. As the Old World claimed dominion over the Americas, colonies were quickly established, especially in the Caribbean. The hotter climates of these and surrounding territories agreed with already popular cash crops like sugar cane and tobacco plants, and thus colonial profiteers forced indigenous populations and foreign slaves to work on plantations to satisfy demands from abroad.
Bananas in the New World
Shortly after Columbus claimed Hispaniola in the name of Spain, bananas were sent from another Spanish holding, the Canary Islands, to be propagated there. Records and genetic evidence are not entirely clear, but this decision set the stage for all subsequent cultivars grown in the Americas, as well as kindling a new market for another cash crop. While not as popular in Europe as refined sugar or tobacco leaves, demand for bananas increased as their international availability did. Over time, as previous foraging and farming methods were lost or displaced with the expansion of plantations, this cash crop became a de facto staple food, specifically the nutritionally denser plantains. Today, countries whose climates do not allow for large banana crops mainly import the sweeter dessert varieties, though global production skews heavily toward plantain cultivars, which make up 85% of the world market.
At first glance bananas might appear to be trees, but they are actually enormous herbs. Rather than woody trunks, they have false trunks, or compacted leafy stems that suspend fruit bunches ten to twenty feet off the ground. Modern varieties produce bunches containing anywhere from fifty to one hundred and fifty. Sometimes these bunches are referred to as hands, given that the individual fruits resemble, and are often called, fingers. Beyond its fruit, banana leaves are also sometimes used in food preparation, as natural wraps to steam food or as containers for transporting and serving food.
Another dissimilarity between banana plants and fruit trees is their propagation. Unlike, say, apple trees, banana stems only produce one round of fruit. Instead of maintaining a system of roots, trunk, branches, and leaves that produce fruit year after year, banana plants have to grow a new stem for every crop of bananas. Farmers usually speed this process along by chopping down harvested stems, making way for banana plant rhizomes (underground stem systems) to send up new shoots more quickly.
Plants that require pollination, use seeds, or spores to propagate their offspring engage in sexual reproduction, a process where genetic information is exchanged between different plants to produce child crops with mixed genes. Counter to this, bananas engage in asexual reproduction. They replicate themselves using just their own genetic information. This means that child bananas are clones of their parent stock. Because of this the fruit can be quite vulnerable to diseases, as there is little to no genetic diversity among and between cultivars. Essentially, if one banana does not have a gene that can fend off a certain threat, that threat could potentially wipe out an entire variety of bananas. And this is not mere speculation, but something that almost happened.
Also known as Panama disease, banana wilt is caused by a strain of the soil-bound fungus Fusarium oxysporum. This fungus thrives in hot, humid conditions, the same kind that bananas favor. When soil that the two share becomes infected, chemical treatments are rarely if ever effective. Fusarium oxysporum’s pathogens enter banana plants through their rhizomes and the infection spreads throughout, discoloring both stem and leaves, causing the latter to wilt, and killing the plant. What is so devastating about this fungus is that once the fungus takes root in soil, this same fate will befall all future banana crops attempted there. Prior to the 1950’s the leading export cultivar among dessert bananas was the Gros Michel, or Big Mike. When Fusarium oxysporum began to spread across the Americas, widespread cultivation of the variety became impossible, especially since the Gros Michel had a small gene pool to fall back on for genetic resistances. Scientists tried to cross breed resistances from other cultivars with the Big Mike, but this proved difficult as the export crop was sterile. The Gros Michel did not go extinct, and can still be purchased today from smaller distributors, but the writing was on the wall for its status as the standard for international dessert bananas.
Abandoning the besieged Gros Michel, farmers in the 50’s switched to the Cavendish cultivar. Hardier than many of their cousins, Cavendish bananas (which include varieties like the Dwarf Cavendish and Grand Nain) were chosen for their resistances to earlier strains of Fusarium oxysporum. Unfortunately for those who produce and consume bananas, it seems that another form of the fungus is beginning to strike American crops. Tropical Race 4 is a new strain of the fungus, and has been found in the soil of several Cavendish farms in multiple countries. At the time, many saw the switch from Gros Michel to Cavendish as an undesirable yet necessary tradeoff. Big Mikes were said to be sweeter and creamier than their understudy, though now it appears the switch to Cavendish bananas might have only delayed some inevitable fate. It remains to be seen if crop scientists will be able to modify the Cavendish to avert this, or if farmers will once again have to shift the market to another cultivar. All that being said, agronomists are not the only scientists interested in bananas.
Banana Candy and Crafted Flavors
One of the more popular culinary myths, at least among those involving candy, is the notion that banana flavoring is based off of the Gros Michel. This is said to explain why banana candies taste different than the Cavendish bananas most of us are accustomed to. But does this explain the divergence in flavor?
Actually, for the most part, yes. Isoamyl acetate is the organic compound that gives both the Gros Michel and the Cavendish much of their distinct scent and taste. Isoamyl acetate, or banana oil as it is sometimes called by culinary scientists, is also what candy producers rely upon to flavor sweets like banana taffy. This shared compound alone does not explain the myth by itself though. For that one must compare Big Mikes and Cavendishes.
Truer to its category, the Gros Michel is much sweeter than the Cavendish, so sweet as to almost taste artificial. Additionally, the Big Mike has a singular flavor, whereas the Cavendish is more nuanced and mellower in its taste profile. Banana candies existed before the 50’s, so candy makers of that era almost certainly based their flavorings on the market standard Gros Michel. It should be noted that artificial flavors are rarely a one-to-one experience between imitation and original. Grapes and artificial grape flavorings are a good example of this, as they do not taste alike yet we still associate the two due to marketing and expectation.
Banana candies are like this too, though their chemical compounds align much closer to their inspiration than many other artificial fruit flavors. Banana candies lack the roundedness of Cavendish bananas because there are far fewer volatile chemicals (chemicals that are free to attach themselves to sensory receptors). Because of this fact, it is true to say that banana candies taste more like the Gros Michel than today’s bananas, though this is not the whole story.
To use an analogy, perfumes are made up of top notes, middle notes, and base notes. Most are made up of multiple volatile compounds, usually with more than one at each level. These aromas within aromas combine and play off of each other, adding dimensions to the overall experience of a perfume. Our sense of taste works similarly, and is also highly dependent on smell. This is why a simpler recipe with fewer ingredients generally tastes flatter or more one note. Fruits are are made up of several organic compounds, contributing to complex tastes that cannot be distilled into singular flavorings. With a limited set of flavor compounds, nothing in a candy is going to mimic the ripening of a banana, so it is still just an imitation. Yet it is an imitation that proves the myth surrounding banana candies largely true.
Hopefully, Tropical Race 4 will be averted, so that future generations can also remark and wonder about the differences between bananas and their namesake candies.
Balter, Michael. “Early Africans Went Bananas”. sciencemag.org, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Jan 5 2006, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2006/01/early-africans-went-bananas#:~:text=Indeed%2C%20banana%20cultivation%20was%20the,than%20about%202000%20years%20ago., Accessed July 16 2020
“Banana”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/plant/banana-plant#ref1203901, Accessed July 16 2020
Baraniuk, Chris. “The secrets of fake flavours”. BBC Future, Aug 28 2014, http://www.bbc.com/future/article/20140829-the-secrets-of-fake-flavours, Accessed July 16 2020
“Panama disease”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/science/Panama-disease, Accessed July 16 2020
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