While most hand fruit grows on trees, the banana “tree” is actually a jumbo perennial herb with huge leaves. The word “banana” is derived from the Arab word for finger, “banan.”
- The banana plant originated in Southeast Asia, in the region of Malaysia. The plants made their way to India, where they are written abut in Buddhist Pali writings dating back to the 6th century B.C.E.
- From India, Arab traders brought bananas to the East Coast of Africa. While Alexander The Great is said to have brought bananas to the West, they did not become a Mediterranean food crop. Portuguese explorers brought them from Africa to the Canary Islands (in the Atlantic Ocean, off Portugal) in the 14th century.
- Bananas entered the New World via Central America in 1516, brought by a Spanish missionary.
The banana plant flower hangs down like an elephant’s trunk. Photo by Paul Szustka | SXC.
- Today, bananas constitute the major export of Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras and Panama (practically all Caribbean Islands grow bananas for domestic use). Their close distance to the U.S. means a steady supply of bananas, and lower transportation costs.
- India, Madeira, Sri Lanka, Turkey and many other tropical and subtropical countries produce significant amounts.
- Bananas grow in “hands,” each of which consists of 10-20 “fingers,” or bananas.
- A bunch may weigh up to 45kg (99 pounds), but commercial banana estates harvest the bunches to weigh approximately 20kg for ease in handling.
- Bananas can be harvested green because they keep ripening even after they are picked. Export bananas are always picked green. However, fruit for local consumption is picked close to ripeness.
- Tourists who have tasted locally-ripened bananas say there is no comparison in taste or texture between tree-ripened fruit and green-picked bananas.
Five “hands” of bananas. Photo by Sanja Gjenero | SXC.
Buying and Storing Bananas
- Bananas ripen quickly at room temperature, so gauge when you’ll need them and buy by color accordingly. Avoid bruised fruit.
- To speed up ripening of green bananas, place them in a paper or plastic bag and seal the bag. The large amounts of ethylene gas emitted by the banana is a ripening agent. (The gas can also help ripen tomatoes, avocados and other fruits—just put them adjacent to, or in a bag with, a banana.)
- A banana is at peak ripeness when brown speckles begin to appear on the peel (see photo below).
- You can refrigerate ripened bananas to retard further ripening. Refrigeration will cause the peel to turn brown, but that does not affect the flavor.
- What to do with overripe bananas? If you have a banana that’s too mushy to eat as fruit, it can still be delicious blended into yogurt, baked into banana bread, or made into smoothies, pancakes, ice cream, banana daiquiris and numerous other recipes.
- Bananas are rich in vitamin C, potassium (422 mg per medium banana) and dietary fiber. They contain almost no sodium or fat and zero cholesterol.
- Bananas are also a good source of folate, manganese and vitamin B6.
- Bananas contain three natural sugars, sucrose, fructose and glucose, which gives an instant boost of energy.
- Bananas provide trace amounts of calcium, zinc, copper, iron, vitamin E and selenium.
Ripe bananas. Photo by Sanja Gjenero | SXC.
- Bananas also contain fructo-oligosaccharide, a resistant starch that acts as a prebiotic. Prebiotics promote a healthy gut and help the body more easily absorb nutrients from food. (Read more about prebiotics.)
- Although bananas are somewhat high in carbohydrates, the American Diabetes Association says that bananas can be considered part of a healthy diet.
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