Bananas are grown primarily in tropical climates, however they are also grown in Iceland where the soil is heated by geysers. In fact, bananas are grown in more than one hundred countries. India is the largest producer of bananas in the world, growing over sixteen million tons each year. Indians believe the flower of the banana plant to be sacred and use it ceremonially for good luck. One of the earliest records of bananas is from 327 B.C. when Alexander the Great made his conquest of India. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition was held in 1876 in the United States and was the first introduction of bananas to the American people. More people flocked to see and taste bananas than to see the first telephone. Worldwide there are more than five hundred different types of banana. Bananas are harvested year round. Banana plants typically grow fifteen to thirty feet tall and can continue producing fruit for as long as one hundred years. Bananas exhibit a unique and fascinating behavior known as negative geotropism. In a nutshell this means that they grow upward toward the sun instead of downward as gravity might suggest.
We typically think of bananas as being yellow but they actually come in a variety of colors including purple and red. Bananas are generally separated into two categories – dessert bananas that you eat raw and cooking bananas which are generally cooked before eating. Bananas aren’t just for eating though. Banana peels contain a natural lubricant. Banana sap can be used as an adhesive. Banana leaves can be used as umbrellas or in many Asian countries are used to wrap food. Japan has been using bananas to produce textiles since at least the 13th century.
Bananas have numerous health benefits. Bananas can actually improve your mood. They are the only fruit that has tryptophan, an amino acid, and vitamin B6 which in combination boost the body’s production of serotonin, a mood enhancing chemical. Banana plants are actually classified as herbs and bananas contain six major groups of vitamins, making them highly nutritious. Bananas are also a wonderful source of energy and contain more complex carbohydrates than any other fruit. Bananas are an excellent source of potassium which benefits many major bodily systems including the heart, nervous system, kidneys and bones. As if all this wasn’t enough, bananas are a good source of fiber which regulates bowel movements and has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Commercial bananas have been genetically engineered over the years. There has been extensive inbreeding which has led to excessive genetic similarity between plants. This makes the plants weaker overall and less able to fight off disease. Gros Michel used to be a popular variety of banana but it was plagued by disease and is no longer being grown. The current most popular commercial variety, Cavendish, is also being threatened by disease and in the next twenty years may have to be removed from the commercial market. Scientists are working on developing a more genetically diverse variety of banana that is better able to resist disease. It’s quite possible though that these bananas of the future will be almost completely different from what we have today.