Banana is the fruit of the banana plant, which is a plant (and not a tree) with huge leaves. It produces only once a year 50 to 400 bananas. Then the plant dries out, and a new sprout will appear which will give bananas a year later. A bunch of bananas is divided into groups of 10 to 20 called fruit ‘hands’ or ‘legs ‘. Individual fruits are called “fingers”. Today, the banana plant is cultivated in all tropical and subtropical areas of the world. They are exported all over the world. In addition, there are many varieties of bananas that have been created to resist to diseases. The bananas are harvested before maturity and packed in cartons. Transported on specially equipped ships, they are then stored in ripening facilities. Two groups of varieties exist: the sweet bananas and the plantains bananas.
The history of banana
The banana is one of the oldest well-known plants. It is probably also one of the first to have been domesticated. However, it’s possible that the fruit was hardly consumed by hunter-gatherer ancestors since before the domestication of the plant, it was a bit fleshy and contained many inedible seeds. On the other hand, it was most likely hunter-gatherer consume its buds as well as its internal leaf sheaths. Primitive fishermen used the fibers of its rod to make nets. The leaves had also various uses.
The musaceae family only includes 2 botanical genera, Musa being by far the most common and the most diverse. This type is divided into many species (from 30 to 50, according to the experts), which many still grow in the wild. However, the majority of the varieties of banana and banana plantains are from M. acuminata and M. balbisiana species or their crossing.
Originally from Southeast Asia, the banana plant followed human migration to the Indian peninsula, Africa and the Pacific Islands. It greatly diversified under the influence of natural evolution and human interventions. In Africa, farmers grow a wide range of banana plantains, very different from those of the Pacific region. There exist another group of bananas to be cooked possessing their own characteristics.
As the banana cannot be stored well and can be easily damaged during transport, it took time to be well-known in the West. It doesn’t seem to have been consumed by the Egyptians, the Greeks or the Romans, and would have appeared in the Middle East only in the seventh century of our era. It spread in Europe and North America in the 19th century because the ships were faster and conservation methods were better controlled.
The banana is considered to be a simple dessert or snack in rich countries. It is entirely different in Asia, Africa and South America. For nearly 400 million people, it is a subsistence food, to put on an equal footing as the nutritious tubers like taro, cassava and sweet potato. Researches carried out in these areas by national and international organizations are important. They are intended to increase the productivity of banana plantations and to find solutions to problems of diseases and insects that attack this culture.
In addition to the fruit, in various parts of the world, the sapling, the base of the stem or the male flower, are consumed. In Asia, the ash of burned leaves serves as salt. Some species of banana are cultivated as ornamental plants. Others are used in the production of fiber for making ropes, paper, cloth, rugs, baskets, recovery of roofing materials and bear the name of “Manila hemp”.
Health profile of banana
Bananas are rich in antioxidants. They would prevent the appearance of many diseases. In addition, sugar contain in them would help maintain a good gastrointestinal health. From a culinary point of view, there are 2 types of bananas: bananas for desserts, like the ones we eat for breakfast, and bananas for cooking like plantain bananas.
The benefits of the banana
Cancer. A prospective study with 61 000 Swiss women, has shown a link between high consumption of fruits and reduced risk of kidney cancer. About all fruits studied, it’s the banana for which researchers found the highest relationship. The banana would have the same beneficial effect on colorectal cancer risk, equally among women and men’s.
Stomach ulcer. A few in vitro studies and among animal tend to demonstrate that the banana in the form of extract (especially the plantain, but also the banana for dessert) may protect the lining of the stomach against ulcers. A study showed that the extract of 2 varieties of bananas grown in Thailand (Palo and Hom) would have a potential gastro-intestinal protection among rats. However, only the Hom variety would have an effect on the healing of the ulceres. This type of banana near the Cavendish variety is the most widespread variety in the world. Current research is however insufficient to recommend consumption of bananas for the prevention or treatment of gastric ulcers.
Chronic diarrhea. A few studies in Bangladesh have shown that consumption of bananas could decrease the symptoms of chronic diarrhea among children. In some cases, a mixture of rice and plantains cooked or a mixture of rice and pectin could decrease the number and weight of stool, as well as the duration of diarrhea among babies. In other cases, consumption of unripe bananas (from ½ to 3 bananas per day, depending on the age of the children) will speed up the healing of acute and chronic diarrhea. Another study carried out in Venezuela has shown that a diet including a cooked preparation of plantain decreased the number and weight of stool, the duration of diarrhea and favored the weight gain, compared to a traditional preparation of yogurt.
Cardiovascular disease. A study indicated that a high consumption of bananas during a meal (400 g, or more than 3 bananas) reduce free radicals present in the body, 2 hours after the meal. This diet reduced oxidation of LDL-cholesterol (bad cholesterol), a process involved in the development of the cardiovascular diseases. However, further studies will be needed to target the effects of banana in the long term and with more moderate doses.
Type 2 diabetes. Resistant starch (a type of sugar) of unripe banana would contribute to weight loss among obese individuals with type 2 diabetes. It can also improve the sensitivity of cells to insulin. An extract of resistant starch from unripe bananas would also decrease the secretion of insulin and glycemia (blood sugar levels) among healthy individuals more than those with type 2 diabetes.
What does banana contain?
The banana is not among the fruits containing the most antioxydants. It still has a high antioxidant capacity, contributing to the prevention of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease and various chronic diseases. The very popular Cavendish banana contains dopamine, a molecule of the family of catecholamines. Dopamine has demonstrated antioxidant activity similar to vitamin C, the most powerful water-soluble antioxidant.
As the banana contains both dopamine and vitamin C, this could explain its high antioxidant ability. The plantain would also be an important source of several phenolic compounds, which would be well absorbed by the body, thereby optimizing their antioxidant potential.
The leucocyanidine is an antioxidant from the flavonoids family and was extracted from unripe plantain. This active compound has shown a protective effect against the erosion of stomach lining, as a result of taking aspirin.
Beta carotenes and alpha carotenes
The plantain contains the beta and alpha-carotene, 2 carotenoids having the ability to turn into vitamin A in the body. Among all the carotenoids, beta-carotene is one whose conversion into vitamin A is most effective. It promotes the growth of bones and teeth, keeps the skin healthy and protects against infections.
Unripe banana contains resistant starch, a type of sugar that resists against the action of digestive enzymes (in the same way as dietary fiber) and leaves it intact in the colon. Under the action of the intestinal flora, non digested starch undergoes a fermentation, which turns it into short-chain fatty acids (for example, butyric acid). The latter stimulates the absorption of liquids and salt in the colon, reducing the loss of water in the stool. Short-chain fatty acids would also indirectly improve the permeability of the small intestine, a phenomenon that helps relieve diarrhea symptoms.
Researchers found that resistant starch decreased the absorption of sugars consumed at the same time, resulting in a decrease in blood glucose (blood sugar level). In addition, regular consumption of resistant starch would lead to a more significant increase in ghrelin during meals, a hormone that has been associated with the improvement of the sensitivity to the insulin.
The plantain contains more resistant starch than the sweet banana. In addition, as the banana ripens, the amount of resistant starch decreases to a point only banana that have not reached their optimum maturation point would contain resistant starch in a significant amount.
The banana is a food incriminated in oral allergy syndrome. This syndrome is an allergic reaction to certain proteins to a variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts. It affects some people with allergies to pollen in the environment and is almost always preceded by hay fever.
Thus, when some people allergic to ragweed consume raw banana (cooking breaks down usually allergenic proteins), an immunological reaction can occur. These people experience itching and burning in the mouth, lips and throat. The symptoms may appear and then disappear, usually a few minutes after having consumed or touched the offending food. In the absence of other symptoms, this reaction is not severe and banana consumption doesn’t have to be avoided in a systematic way. However, it is recommended to consult an allergist to determine the cause of the reactions in plant foods. The latter will be able to assess whether special precautions should be taken.
People allergic to latex can demonstrate a hypersensitivity to banana as well as other foods such as avocado and kiwi. Reactions vary, from urticaria to anaphylactic reactions. Given the potential severity of reactions, special attention must be given at the time when consuming these foods for people who know they are allergic to latex. Again, it is recommended that you consult an allergist to determine the cause of the reactions to certain foods and which precautions must be taken.
Selection and conservation
A few words on banana and plantain
From a culinary point of view, there are 2 types of bananas: bananas for dessert and bananas for cooking. In this last category, the plantain is by far the most common. For each of these types, there are a multitude of varieties giving fruit whose size, shape, color and flavor can widely vary. Most of these varieties are unknown outside their country of production. The main banana producing countries are located in Asia and Latin America, as well as Africa for cooking bananas variety. Almost all dessert bananas are exported worldwide from a single variety, the Cavendish.
The more the banana presents green marks, the less mature it is and the more it will be possible to keep it for a long time. It can then be used for cooking. On the other hand, you will have to let it mature before consuming it raw, because at that point, it is indigestible. It’s ready to be eaten when the flesh slightly gives up when pressured and the skin is very yellow, without any green color. When it has brown or black spots, it is better for cooking. Note that small bananas are generally sweeter than large ones.
Plantain is generally sold when it skin is green.
We can find a red pink banana in specialized grocery stores. It is eaten raw or cooked.
Dried bananas found in supermarkets often contain added sugar.
The “essence of banana”, used to flavor liqueurs and confections (along with some melted cheese), is actually of amyl acetate, a substance obtained from acetic acid synthesis. The essence of natural banana is too volatile to be a culinary interest.
In Asian groceries, we can find frozen banana leaves which can be used to cook food in foil.
Room temperature. As the banana turns black in contact with the cold, it is recommended to keep it at room temperature, in compote or on the counter. To hasten the ripening of green bananas, put them in a brown paper bag.
Freezer. Remove the skin and freeze it whole, in pieces or pureed. Sprinkle with lemon juice when taking it out of the freezer to prevent oxidation.
Don’t peel the banana at time of consumption or to prepare, because his flesh oxidizes in contact air. Whether peeling beforehand, we slightly add lemon.
Plantain banana are more easily peeled after blanching it 5 minutes in boiling water with salt.