Thursday, May 12, 2011

The High Price of.... Bananas?

We go through a lot of bananas in this house. Loaded with potassium, they are portable, delish, and oh-so-good-for-you-that-Mom-will-never-say-no. I love them after a run to stave off cramping muscles. The kids eat them faster than I can buy them. If they hang around long enough to get brown, I freeze them to make banana smoothies and banana bread. So imagine my alarm when I stumbled across an article in Time magazine this week that trumpeted the impending surge in the price of bananas!


Apparently the big banana growers, Del Monte and Chiquita are planning on passing on the increase they’ve experienced in the cost of fuel. Never mind that bananas are the most frequently purchased fruit in America (which is kind of funny to me since they are one of the only fruits we can’t grow here), even Wal-Mart can’t save us from the inevitable price increase. I already pay a high price for organic bananas, so what caught my attention in the article, wasn’t the price gauging, but the fact that bananas are picked green and loaded on to special boats in to gas chambers where they are then blasted with ethylene gas so that they will ripen by the time they reach the stores.

This led me to wonder – are my organic bananas being gassed? After much too much time casing the internet, I have to conclude that I don’t know. Maybe. The federal government approves the use of ethylene on organic bananas. Their argument is that that ethylene simply speeds up a natural process. Hmmm. That smells of some powerful lobbyists.

So what are the dangers of ethylene gas? Ethylene gas occurs naturally in most fruits and vegetables, but the ethylene being use to gas most bananas is not the natural version – that’s too costly to justify. The ethylene gas being used by the big growers is a petroleum-based synthetic imposter that does the same job. It’s most dangerous to the people handling the gas before it is applied to the fruit. Workers exposed to the gas have reported nausea and dizziness. I couldn't locate any long-term studies on the effects of ethylene gas on the workers who handle it. (My guess is the guys loading the bananas in South America haven’t got the funds for a good lawyer) Another danger of handling ethylene gas is that it's explosive and at least one factory was destroyed by improperly handled ethylene.

So how do you avoid gassed bananas? Most likely, you can’t, unless you move to South America. But you can opt for the bananas that are green which may mean they were not chemically ripened or at least, only minimally. It’s easy to ripen them yourself at home. Just put the bananas in a paper bag with an apple. The apple lets off a natural ethylene gas which will ripen the bananas.

Some organic bananas are wrapped in plastic to ripen. I haven’t been able to verify that these bananas weren’t gassed, but I’m guessing if the company took the time/expense to individually wrap the banana cluster in tight plastic, they were opting out of the gas chamber.

So are organic bananas worth it? I’ve read in several sites that non-organic bananas are just fine, presumably because they are protected from the pesticides by their lovely natural yellow wrapper. This makes sense only until I remember that a banana, like all fruit and vegetables, comes from the ground in which it was grown. So if that ground is laden with pesticides and insecticides and heaven knows what else they use to boost production, the banana is full of it also. So as long as my kids consume bananas at the rate they do, I’ll stick to paying about 30 cents extra per pound to know I’m not serving them a side of chemicals with every banana.

I’ve always relished the banana for the shot of energy it delivers, but look what else it offers:

A medium banana has 100 calories and….

1 gram of protein
3 grams of dietary fiber
26.9 g carbohydrates
23.9 g sugar
467 mg Potassium
43 mg Magnesium
27 mg Phosphorus
7 mg Calcium
1.3 mcg Selenium
.4 mg Iron
Also trace amounts of zinc, manganese and copper
95 IU Vitamin A
11 mg Vitamin C
22.5 mcg Folate (important during pregnancy)
.7mcg Vitamin B6
.6 mg Niacin
.31 mg Pantothenic Acid
.67 IU Vitamin E

Wow! So what’s so great about all those vitamins? Well, for starters potassium doesn’t only help avert muscle cramps, it also helps regulate blood pressure and can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. We all need all the fiber we can get. Vitamin B6 is a tricky one to load up on but it boosts your immune system and helps regulate your nervous system. The calcium and protein are a boon, not to mention Vitamins A & C. So much good stuff, what’s not to love?

And here’s a few fun facts I collected while surfing the web:

- Peel a banana from the bottom and you won't have to pick the little "stringy things" off of it. That's how the primates do it.

- Take your bananas apart when you get home from the store. If you leave them connected at the stem, they ripen faster.

- A banana really is a natural remedy for many ills. When you compare it to an apple, it has four times the protein, twice the carbohydrate, three times the phosphorus, five times the vitamin A and iron, and twice the other vitamins and minerals. It is also rich in potassium and is one of the best value foods around. (finetuneyou.com)

- You should store your bananas over the counter at room temperature until they reach the ripeness you want, then you can store them in the refrigerator. The peel of the fruit will darken in the refrigerator but the banana inside will remain firm and delicious. To ripen a banana faster, it should be put in a brown paper bag with an apple or tomato overnight. (essortment.com)

And just in case you need something to do with the bananas sitting on your counter turning brown, here’s my favorite banana bread recipe:

Banana Oat Quick Bread

3/4 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup quick oats
¼ cup flaxseed meal
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed ripe banana (or more if you’ve got it)
½ cup low-fat buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil (I use grapeseed oil)
2 eggs
¼ cup quick oats
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons butter

1. Combine flour and next six ingredients. Make a well in center.
2. Combine banana, buttermilk, oil, and egg; add to flour. Stir just until moist.
3. Spoon into 8”x4” loaf pan coated with spray.
4. Combine ¼ cup oats, walnuts, brown sugar, and butter and sprinkle over batter.
5. Bake at 350 for one hour.

4 comments:

  1. The reason to buy organic bananas is for the workers! Conventional bananas are covered in plastic containing insecticides and when the workers remove the plastic they end up breathing it. I've been reading around and stumbled across this blog. Thanks so much for the info!

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  2. "Yes, Virginia", we can grow bananas here in the US. Well, at least here in FL and south GA. You can grow the heck out of them. My grandpa had banana trees in his backyard in Jacksonville FL (NE FL) and he grew big pretty bananas that were highly coveted in my family. No magic there, just some fertilizer and some TLC. I have seen plenty of "feral" banana trees on abandoned lots and abandoned homesteads that had fruit growing on them. I think the issue with growing bananas in the US for US consumption is, #1-cost. It is many times cheaper to produce them in countries outside the US. No one would want to pay what US grown bananas would cost, because imported fruit is so much cheaper. Unless someone wants to grow specialty organic bananas for specialty stores at specialty prices, there's no money in it.

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  3. Wow! Good to know bananas can be grown here. Do they taste better too? I will seek them out the next time I'm in FL visiting the family. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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