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Yes, we'll still have bananas

By Michelle Edelbaum, January 14, 2011 - 12:15pm

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I don’t know about you, but bananas are a staple in my house. In fact, it’s the first thing my son asks for every day when he wakes up. (It would be wrong to leave a bunch in his crib, right?) I can’t imagine what would happen if we had no bananas, which are one of the best fruit sources of potassium (a nutrient associated with healthy blood pressure) and boast good doses of vitamin C, cell-building B6 and fiber.

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But according to a new article out in The New Yorker, the Cavendish banana, which Americans eat more of than any other fresh fruit, may be in danger of being wiped out completely by a soil-borne fungus, called Tropical Race Four, that is harmful only to bananas. New Yorker reporter-at-large Mike Peed writes:

Tropical Race Four appeared in Taiwan in the late eighties, and destroyed roughly seventy per cent of the island’s Cavendish plantations. In Indonesia, more than twelve thousand acres of export bananas were abandoned; in Malaysia, a local newspaper branded the disease “the H.I.V. of banana plantations.” When the fungus reached China and the Philippines, the effect was equally ruinous. Australia was next.

Peed says that scientists believe that Tropical Race Four, which has caused tens of millions of dollars’ worth of damage and has not been able to be controlled with chemicals, will ultimately find its way to Latin America—and to the fruit that Americans buy.

This week I talked with expert Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World and banana enthusiast. Koeppel says that the variety’s demise could take 5 to 20 years or more. “Nobody knows, but that’s not a reason to relax,” Koeppel said. “Contaminated dirt will come to a country on someone’s boots or on a container ship. All it takes is one clump of dirt and the infection begins.”

The New Yorker article says big banana companies like Dole and Chiquita are reportedly working on developing a replacement or disease-resistant variety of the Cavendish, which has become the mass-market banana of choice for farmers and distributors because it provides a lot of fruit that can weather overseas shipping without bruising too easily or ripening too quickly. David Bright, vice president of marketing for Dole, said that the company hasn’t seen issues with Tropical Race Four in Central America, although it has in Asia.

“As I understand it the Central American production is not prone to it,” Bright said. “I’m not an expert in the production of bananas but in the discussions with our production people, the virus that has been attacking the bananas in Asia it doesn’t take hold in the same way in Central America because of soils and other things.” He said they are working on developing a Cavendish banana that is resistant to the fungus. Bright said Dole is constantly looking out for this and doesn’t feel there’s a danger of bananas being wiped out in Central America.

Koeppel says right now there is no replacement in sight for the Cavendish. “They’re in a bind. The business model of the banana companies is like that of McDonald’s. They sell one crappy product in huge bulk at low prices. There’s a real problem to get diversity in the banana market.” And anyway, Koeppel adds, a modified banana (conventionally or genetically) would only be part of the arsenal of ensuring bananas in the future.

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Koeppel says the bigger answer to ensuring our banana supply for years to come truly lies in diversity. Bringing more varieties of bananas to market would present both opportunities and global supply-chain challenges in growing, packaging and shipping. “When you have a monoculture you still end up with the same problem. Banana diseases are devastating no matter what variety you’re talking about. As long as you’re putting all your bananas in one basket you’re still at risk.”

Dole is always looking for different varieties of bananas to bring to market. “I’d love to see it happen. It’s difficult to beat the Cavendish,” Bright said. “The Cavendish we have right now is a banana that eats really well, grows well, packs well and is resistant to many other types of diseases.” He said bringing other bananas to market would likely require consumer education and retaining because other varieties’ peels have brown spots and are unappealing-looking when they are ready to eat, which consumers aren’t used to. “We’ve run test markets, it’s just a matter of getting the right banana,” Bright said.

So what can consumers do? Start to broaden their banana tastes. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas in the world. They come in many sizes, colors and flavors, from some with flesh that is described as tasting like crème brûlée to others that are just 1 inch long; buy and try other banana varieties when you see them in the grocery store. Ask your produce manager to order some of them.

Here are 4 varieties (pictured above with the Cavendish, second from left), which Melissa Pasanen wrote about in the January/February issue of EatingWell Magazine, that you’re most likely to see throughout the year in your well-stocked supermarket.

Baby Banana (far left): This banana is sweeter than the Cavendish and has deep yellow-colored flesh with a banana custard flavor. One has 80 calories.

Burro (second from right in bunch): Stockier than other varieties, with square edges, the Burro has a mild flavor similar to the Cavendish. It is ripe when the skin is yellow with black spots.

Red Banana (far right in bunch): With more vitamin C than a Cavendish and a hint of raspberry flavor, its reddish skin becomes more purple or dark red when it’s ripe. It will still be somewhat firm, yet yield slightly to gentle pressure.

Manzano (below right of the bunch): Also known as the “apple banana,” this one is sweet with hints of tart apple flavor.

More reasons to love bananas?

1. They come in their own portion-controlled, portable, biodegradable packaging. Koeppel says he thinks bananas are the one food that has a chance of helping the childhood obesity problem. “You see a banana being sold at 75 cents in a convenience store, just like a Snickers bar. The packaging and portability is part of that appeal.” (Find 7 more healthy superfoods for $1 or less here.)

2. They’re a good neighbor in the kitchen. Bananas give off so much ethylene gas while they’re ripening they can turn green tomatoes red or ripen a hard avocado if you put them in a paper bag together for a few days.

3. They rarely go to waste. Refrigerate once ripe and the skin will darken, but the fruit inside will be fine. Use really ripe bananas for baking or smoothies. Or peel and freeze them whole to use later.

What's your favorite banana variety?

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TAGS: Michelle Edelbaum, Food News Blog

Michelle Edelbaum
Michelle is the digital director for EatingWell. She puts her background in journalism to work at to help deliver daily inspiration for eating healthy.

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