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Stolen: Bananas

by Joanne Stolen

In our household, running out of bananas is what gets me to the grocery store. I usually eat a banana a day with my morning smoothie. Bananas are rich in potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese, and high in fiber. They are considered a high-energy fruit. The average banana contains 467 mg of potassium, which is an essential mineral for maintaining normal blood pressure and is one of the most important electrolytes. It helps regulate heart function as well as fluid balance, and is also good for bone health. Bananas have also been recognized for their antacid effects, which protects against stomach ulcers. A study showed that a mixture of banana and milk significantly suppressed acid secretion. First, substances in bananas help activate the cells that compose the stomach lining, so they produce a thicker protective mucus barrier against stomach acids; and second, other enzymes in the banana help eliminate bacteria in the stomach, the cause of stomach ulcers. In addition, bananas are an exceptionally rich source of a compound called a “prebiotic,” because it nourishes normal bacteria in the colon. These beneficial bacteria produce vitamins and digestive enzymes that improve our ability to absorb nutrients, plus compounds that protect us against disease-causing microorganisms.

What are the brown spots on bananas? Banana producers use ethylene gas to start the ripening process after the banana has been cut from the tree, green. It is produced by bananas naturally, but in much smaller quantities that are used in the chambers. The ripening process consists not only of changing the color of the peel, but also in breaking the starch into plain sugars, which in turn influences the taste of the fruit. There is an international banana color chart by which bananas are graded. Market research shows most consumers prefer color 5 when buying bananas: clear yellow with few or no superficial brown specks. Ethylene continues the ripening process, which gives the banana a “bruised” appearance, and eventually turns the banana black in color. Bananas are very fragile, and the larger spots on the bananas are bruises; the smaller spots on the bananas are part of the ripening process. Normally, an enzyme in the banana peel works as a defense against insects, bacteria and fungus. When the fruit is damaged, an enzymatic reaction results in the production of a dark pigment melanin, hence the dark areas.

Why, when you put your bananas in the refrigerator, do they turn black? Refrigeration temperatures cause the peel to blacken prematurely, but the fruit is still good to eat. Bananas can also be frozen and will keep for about two months.

Bananas are thought to have originated in Malaysia around 4,000 years ago and may be one of the first crops to be domesticated by man. They are a cousin of the orchid, and with stalks 25 feet high, they’re the largest plant on earth without a woody stem. The cluster of fruits contain from 50 to 150 bananas with individual fruits grouped in bunches, known as “hands,” containing 10 to 25 bananas. There are hundreds of edible varieties that fall under two species: the sweet banana, and the plantain banana. Sweet bananas vary in size and color. We are accustomed to seeing sweet bananas with yellow skins, but some varieties can also be red, pink, purple and black in color when ripe. Their flavor and texture range from sweet to starchy.

In the United States, the most familiar varieties are Big Michael, Martinique and Cavendish. Today, bananas grow in most tropical and subtropical regions of South America and In North America more bananas are eaten every day than any other fruit. So have a banana, they are good for you!

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.


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