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Archive for Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Banana’s appeal depends on ripening stage

August 21, 2002

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As a topic of discussion at my house, bananas are as volatile as religion and politics are in other quarters and it's not because bananas give off more ethylene gas as they ripen than do other fruit.

Everyone in my family eats a banana almost every day, and that's where the trouble starts.

My husband and the person formerly known as my favorite teen-ager, who will be 21 next month, won't touch a banana that has a single sugar spot. Even if you need a magnifying glass to see this tiny brown dot and the ends of the banana are still green, they proclaim the fruit unfit for human consumption.

By their standards, such a banana is overripe to the point of being nearly rotten, and only someone who was out to get them would even suggest that they eat it.

So much the better for me. When the peel starts to freckle, that's the point at which I get interested in eating a banana. If there's any green showing, the fruit doesn't sit well in my stomach.

Compare and contrast these two perspectives on banana aesthetics (mine being the moderate and most reasonable position, of course) with that of Bill Mayer, the Journal-World's sports historian. Before he retired, Bill arrived in the newsroom every morning and plopped a black-skinned banana down on his desk to eat as a snack later in the day.

Most of his co-workers pretended not to notice, as if this were the sort of thing that polite people shouldn't mention. However, a day or so before Bill's retirement party, someone got the bright idea that one of Bill's parting gifts should be a bunch of black bananas. The problem was that we didn't have time to let bananas ripen naturally to a blackened state, and someone suggested microwaving them.

Not recommended. The pulp turned to goo and blew up. Come to find out, we simply could have put yellow bananas in the refrigerator and the skins would have darkened, while the pulp would have retained its level of ripeness for up to two weeks.

These facts and more I learned while researching a question from reader Forrest Budd: "I am hoping that you might be able to help me find some information about the changes in nutritional content and chemical content of bananas as they progress from the green stage through speckling and turning brown. I want to know if there is a stage when their consumption might be detrimental to one's digestive system, and if there is anyway to neutralize the bitter taste which develops as they turn brown."

Bananas are loaded with vitamins and minerals. A 9-inch banana contains a whopping 602 milligrams of potassium, vitamins A through C and respectable amounts of calcium and magnesium, but only 140 calories.

A master's thesis on the Oregon State University Department of Foods and Nutrition Web site reports that the protein level in a banana increases about 50 percent after four days of ripening.

Generally, the greener the banana, the higher the starch and acid level; as ripening occurs, the starches convert to sugar. Ripening reduces the phenolic content as well as levels of dopamine and ascorbic acid in the banana. In short, eating bananas in the green stage may not be exactly toxic, but there's a reason they give some people a stomach ache.

Someone who still recognizes a bitter taste in a ripe banana might solve the problem by drizzling a little honey over the banana.

As bananas ripen at room temperature, they emit a high level of ethylene gas. Ripening can be sped up by placing bananas in a paper bag, so that the ethylene gas the bananas produce also contributes to the ripening process.

Strangely, there are quite a few banana fanatics out there on the Internet. They swap banana lore and help novices get started collecting banana stickers. It's sort of a cult thing.

The banana devotees also have an anti-defamation mission. If you want to be politically correct in discussing the banana with someone who cares, you won't refer to it as a fruit that grows on a tree. It's an herb.

I also stumbled into www.banana.com, where the medicinal value of the banana gets quite a bit of attention. There, on a laundry list of banana benefits, the beloved fruit sorry, herb is touted as a hangover cure and the peels are said to be useful in treating warts and mosquito bites. Apply the peel, yellow side up to the affected skin.




When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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