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Banana and Plantain


BANANA AND PLANTAIN. Bananas, including the dessert banana and the cooking types or plantains, are cultivated in more than 120 countries throughout the tropics and subtropics, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) current statistics. In terms of total production the banana ranks after oranges, grapes, and apples, but when plantain production is added, it becomes the world's number one fruit crop. While commercial production of bananas is oriented to the fresh export trade destined mainly for temperate-zone markets, plantains and even unripe bananasconsumed boiled, fried, roasted, or even brewedare a major staple food throughout the tropics.

The origin of the word "banana" probably derives from languages spoken in the coastal regions of Sierra Leone at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is important to note that none of the major producing regions seem to have incorporated clear linguistic distinctions between dessert and cooking bananas in their languages. The Spanish word plátano from which the English term "plantain" may have derived (Simmonds, p. 57)does not have a precise origin but is employed throughout the Spanish-speaking world and its meaning changes with location: in most of Central and South America, while the word banana is used as in English, plátano is reserved for the plantain, whereas in Mexico and Spainthe latter including the Canary Islands, from which the banana is thought to have been carried to the New World (Galán Saúco, p. 9)it is used for either bananas or plantains. The situation in Southeast Asia is somewhat different, where vernacular names do not differentiate between dessert and cooking bananas (kluai in Thailand, pisang in Malaysia and Indonesia, saging in the Philippines, chiao in China, or choui in Vietnam) (Valmayor et al., p. 13).


According to Chesman, who in 1948 pioneered the modern classification of bananas (Simmonds, p. 53), most edible bananas and plantains belong to the Eumusa section of the genus Musa (family Musaceae) and derive from the species Musa acuminata Colla and M. balbisiana Colla, which correspond roughly to two species originally described by Linnaeus in his general botanical work Systema Naturae (1758) to which he gave the names M. sapientum and M. paradisiaca, the first referring to a plant producing horn-shaped fruit and similar to the modern "French Plantain," and the second to a type similar to the most popular dessert banana of the tropics, the "Silk Fig." Both of Linnaeus's designations were soon widely applied, with any plantain being referred to as M. sapientum and all dessert types being referred to as M. paradisiaca. This outdated nomenclature is still used in some modern reference books and papers.

A completely different group evolved from the Australimusa section of the Musa genus, the so-called Fe'i bananas, common in the Pacific and composed of a group of cultivars characterized by the red sap of the plant and, chiefly, the fact that its fruit is produced in erect bunches rather than the hanging bunches typical of all Eumusa types. It is likely that several species, most particularly M. maclayi Muell., are involved in the origin of the Fe'i group.

In purely commercial terms, the most important dessert bananas are those of the Cavendish subgroupsterile, seedless triploids (AAA) of M. acuminata, of which the best known cultivars are "Grande Naine" and "Dwarf Cavendish." Others include AA diploids (such as "Pisang Mas" in Southeast Asia and "Bocadillo" in Latin America, both well known because of their excellent taste, which makes them highly prized by European gourmet fruit retailers), various AB diploids (acuminata balbisiana ), AAA triploids (the best known is "Gros Michel," at one time the world's leading commercial cultivar but now virtually absent from cultivation because of its high susceptibility to Panama disease, a fungal wilt of serious economic importance), and AAB triploids such as "Silk Fig" (also known as "Pome" and "Manzano"), and the recently obtained AAAB tetraploid "Goldfinger."

Cooking bananas are usually hybrids, mainly AAB or ABB triploids, with the exception of the so-called "Highlands bananas," AAA triploids used in Africa mainly for beer production.

Area of Origin and Main Historical Developmental Facts

Wild bananas were probably used in prehistoric times for, among other non-food purposes, cloth, shelter, and dyes. Interest in them as a food crop appeared early in agricultural history, doubtless linked to the appearance of parthenocarpy (i.e., development of fruit without pollination) and consequent lack of seeds in the primitive types of M. acuminata from which the modern edible triploids evolved. Many wild banana diploids and triploids are still abundant throughout southeastern Asia, with a primary area of origin in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, while most of the plantains originated in India and the Philippines. In any event, both spread quickly to other tropical and subtropical regions of the world. The Fe'i bananas evolved throughout the Pacific islands from Indonesia to the Marquesas and still remain closely confined to the area.

The main recognized milestones of these movements are:

c. 500 c.e.
Introduction to Africa from Indonesia (via Madagascar)
c. 1000 c.e.
Distribution throughout Polynesia and introduction to Mediterranean areas during Muslim expansion
Introduction to the Canary Islands from West Africa
First recorded introduction to the New World (Santo Domingo) from the Canary Islands
Distribution of bananas and plantains throughout tropical America
Early 1800s
Introduction to the New World from Southeast Asia of the cultivars Dwarf Cavendish and Gros Michel
Late 1800s
Beginning of the international trade
Banana becomes a major food item in the temperate-zone markets of the Western world as well as in Asia

Many authors question some of these dates: particularly at issue is the well-documented distribution of the banana in South and Central America shortly after Columbus's first trip, leading some historians to speculate on its presence in the New World prior to 1492. But until proof becomes available, the accepted explanation is that its rapid foothold and spread ran parallel to the slave trade, for which the banana was considered a staple food. The relative durability of banana propagation material and the rapidity with which the plant produces fruit favor this hypothesis, although the archaic uses of the plant's materials still practiced today by some native communities of the Amazon basin, as well as the increasing body of knowledge pointing to the Asiatic ancestry of Native Americanswhose forebears could conceivably have brought banana seeds with themalso support the idea of an early introduction to Latin America (Moreira).

Legends and Myths

The banana plant has been associated with the religions, folklore, traditions, and social customs of many cultures. In most cases these refer to the special botanical characteristics of the plant. A good example is the Indonesian myth "The banana and the rock," which in short recounts how in the beginning, God gave humans a rock as a gift. Not at all pleased, the humans clamored for a different gift, whereupon God gave them a banana plant but with the caveat "You choose the banana and not the rock. Your life will be like this plant, in that soon after it has borne descendants the mother plant will die and the young shoots at its base will come into their own. If you had chosen the rock, your life would be eternal." (Frazer, as cited in Infomusa, 1999). The banana is regarded in many cultures as a symbol of fertility and prosperity; thus, it is frequently planted in the corner of subsistence fields of rice, yam, and other basic crops to "protect" them. Throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific the plant is an important part of the dowry, ensuring food for the newlyweds' future family.

In New Caledonia the Fe'i banana, given its typical blood-red sap, is considered to be the reincarnation of ancestors, with different clones identified with the diverse clans and others considered privileges of the chiefs. The Yanomami tribe of the Brazilian Amazon use the fruit in their funeral rituals, eating a paste of ripe bananas to which the ashes of the deceased are added (

In the East African highlands, the care and cooking of bananas are tasks reserved for women, with each elderly woman undertaking the responsibility to provide for ten men; beer bananas, on the other hand, are part of the male domain. In Tanzania, however, women prepare the beer and proceeds from sale are their only socially acceptable form of revenue. Hawaiian women, by contrast, were forbidden, under pain of death, from eating most kinds of bananas until the early 1800s (

The Qur'an holds that the banana is the Tree of Paradise, and the notorious forbidden fruit that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden could conceivably have been a banana rather than an apple, to say nothing of the leafcertainly larger than that of the fig treewith which she later covers her modesty. Simmonds provides some support for this, reminding us that Linnaeus did give the banana its scientific species name of paradisiaca (paradise), as well as that the frequent inclusion of "fig" in the common and cultivar names given to certain banana varieties cannot be purely coincidental.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the strong relationship between the banana and humans is the fact that in many languages the banana plant is referred to using terms that indicate people consider it as a family unit: "mother plant" referring to the plant while it is producing a bunch and that will become the "grandmother" once that bunch has been cut; "son" or "daughter" plant referring to the sucker growing at the mother's base, which will produce the next crop; the "parent crop," referring to the plants that will provide the first harvest. In the same anthropomorphic line, the terms "hands" and "fingers" are assigned to the fruit (see Botanical Description).

Botanical Description

Bananas and plantains are evergreen herbaceous tropical plants that can be considered giant herbs, as some varieties reach up to ten meters in height, although most commercial types grow to between two and five meters (see Fig. 1). The external "trunk" is in fact a pseudostem formed by the concentric assemblement of the leaf sheaths crowned by a rosette of large, oblong-to-ellipticshaped leaves (ten to twenty under healthy conditions), conferring on the plant the aspect of a herbaceous tree. The true stem is a subterranean organ that extends upward at the core of the pseudostem until culminating in the inflorescence (the fruiting organ of the plant), which emerges from the top of the plant, and it is responsible for producing all the other parts of the plant: roots, leaves, and shoots or suckers. Leaves are produced successively until the inflorescence is cast, and in variable quantity depending on the specific variety of banana or plantain, climate, and cultural practices.

Although the plant dies after producing fruit, it can be considered perennial in as much as suckers successively replace the senescent aerial parts without need for replanting. Several suckers emerge consecutively from buds located at the axil of leaves; under commercial cultivation, they are regularly eliminated, leaving either the most vigorous sucker, or the one capable of producing a bunch when better prices can be obtained, to replace the mother plant.

The large and complex inflorescence is composed of double rows of flowers, called hands, and covered by bracts, usually red or reddish in color, grouped helixoidally along the inflorescence axis, reproducing the pattern of the leaf system. All flowers are hermaphroditic, but only the female or so-called "first" hands (in most cases between four and nine, but sometimes up to fifteen) will give rise to the edible fruittechnically known as fingers; the other hands are of an intermediate or even male character and do not produce edible fruit (these rudimentary fruitlets usually fall before the edible fingers mature). Commercial fruit develops parthenocarpically, although some varieties produce seed in the wild or can be forced to do so in specialized breeding work.

Depending mainly on climate, cultivation conditions, and varieties, the time lapse between emission of the inflorescence and harvesting of the bunch can be anywhere from three to ten months. Bananas are harvested year-round, with normal commercial bunch weights of 1530 kg, although bunches of more than 45 kg are not unusual when properly cultivated (exceptional cases of bunches of more than 125 kg have been recorded). A medium-sized dessert banana finger weighs around 160 g.

Nutritional Value and Uses

Banana fruit is composed mainly of water (around 65 percent for banana and 75 percent for plantain) and carbohydrates (from 22 percent for banana and 32 percent for plantain). It contains several vitamins, including A, B, and C, and is very low in protein and fat but rich in minerals, particularly potassium (around 400 mg/100 g). It is cholesterol free, high in fiber, and low in sodium. Chemical composition varies not only among cultivars but also according to climatic and other conditions (values are widely available in most of the texts cited in the Bibliography).

Ripe fruit is usually consumed freshsimply peeled and eaten as a snack or dessert, in salads mixed with other fruit, and with breakfast cereals, but it also lends itself to more elaborate dishes ranging from ice cream to pie fillings.

Plantains, being starchier than bananas, can be eaten ripe or unripe, but many countries have developed commercial processes to provide a wide variety of products from both fruits (in several cases, green bananas can also be used): puree, flour, jam, jelly, chips, crisps, flakes, dried, catsup, relishes or spreads, preserves, vinegar, and even wine. Banana flour, both from green and ripe fruit, has a great industrial potential and, enriched with sugar, powdered milk, minerals and vitamins, and artificial flavoring, is much used in baby foods. In several areas of Southeast Asia, young fruits are pickled. Puree is used in the manufacture of dairy products, such as yogurt and ice cream, in breads and cakes, banana-flavored drinks, baby food, and diverse sauces.

In Ugandathe country with the highest per-capita consumption of bananas and plantains in the world in 1996: 243 kg while people in most European countries only averaged between 7 and 15 kgan important part of the diet comes from unripe plantains that are first peeled, then steamed wrapped in their own leaves, and finally pounded to a starchy paste called matoke that constitutes the main dish. Both Uganda and Tanzania produce and consume large quantities of beer brewed from local Highlands bananas. A plantain and soybean mixture, SOYAMUSA, combining carbohydrates and proteins, has been recently developed in Nigeria to be used as a weaning food for toddlers. All told, bananas and plantains represent more than 25 percent of the food energy requirements of Africa (Frison and Sharrock, p. 30).

Tostones is a very popular dish in the Caribbean: slices of green plantain are double-fried (flattening slices with a wooden press between fryings), producing a tasty side dish used in lieu of the ubiquitous french-fried potato. Mofongo is a typical Puerto Rican dish made from fried green plantain, pork, and garlic. Finely ground and roasted dried green plantain has been utilized as a coffee substitute in some countries (Morton, 1987, p 43).

Although the fruit is the main economic product, many parts of the banana plant can be used as food, fodder, or for industrial purposes. Throughout the tropics, male buds, young flowers, and even the pseudostem of some cultivars are eaten cooked as vegetables. Flowers and ashes from burned green leaves and pseudostems are used in curries in Southeast Asia. The possibility of using the raquis to prepare a flour for human consumption and of making a marmalade from plantain peel is being studied in Colombia. Leaves are used for wrapping other food during steaming or other cooking, such as in preparing the Venezuelan hallaca and many pit-steamed or pitroasted meats and vegetables typical among the Pacific Islanders. Banana leaves are also used as environmentally friendly "disposable plates" in southern India, where in fact several cultivars (mainly AAB or ABB plantain types) are grown exclusively for leaf production (Singh, p. 27).

Green and commercially rejected ripe bananas are currently used as animal feed. Leaves, pseudostems, bunch raquis, and peels are also commonly used in fodder. In the Canary Islands (Spain), fresh, chopped banana leaves make up about 80 percent of the diet of Pelibüey sheep.

Medicinal and Therapeutical Value

The easy digestibility and nutritional content make ripe banana an excellent food, particularly suitable for young children and elderly people. In the green stage (and after liquefying) it is used in Brazil to treat dehydration in infants, as the tannins in the fruit tend to protect the lining of the intestinal tract against further loss of liquids. In general, the banana is appropriate for consumption when a low-fat, low-sodium, and/or cholesterol-free diet is required, making it particularly recommendable for people with cardiovascular and kidney problems, arthritis, gout, or gastrointestinal ulcers (Robinson, p. 216).

As the fruit is easy to carry and peel, it is of great value to athletes as a quick and healthy method of replenishing energy because of its high energy value: 75115 kCal/100 mg of pulp (the lower range for banana and the higher for plantain). Both bananas and plantains contain complex carbohydrates capable of replacing glycogen and important vitamins, particularly B6 and C, and minerals (potassium, calcium, magnesium, and iron). Ripe fruit has been used to treat asthma and bronchitis, and, as mentioned, in the control of diarrhea. Boiled and mashed ripe fruit, especially when mixed with other appropriate plants, is also cited as a good remedy against constipation.

The juice extracted from the male bud is thought to be good for stomach problems. The peel of ripe bananas has antiseptic properties and can be used to prepare a poultice for wounds or even applied directly to a wound in an emergency. The banana pseudostem is also cooked in India as a dish called "Khich Khach," to be taken monthly to prevent constipation. Fresh leaves have reportedly been used medicinally for a whole range of disorders from headaches to urinary tract infectionsat one time, stem juice was considered a remedy for gonorrhea. Many of these purported remedies are not well documented and require further investigation.

Modern History, Commercialization, and Trade

The greatest development of the international banana trade occurred in Latin America during the second half of the nineteenth century, with exports from the West Indies and Central America to markets in North America. It was linked inexorably to railway and port expansion and to land concession policies. The founding in 1899 of the United Fruit Companyof Chiquita brand renownis generally considered to be the fundamental milestone in this process. According to several sources, over the course of many decades this company wielded considerable power over the governments of several Central American countries, to which it allegedly "contributed" around 30 percent of its net operating profit. Thus the term "banana republic" came into use to define a country whose government was manipulated, and presumably corrupted, by the economic clout of a private enterprise.

From harvesting to consumption, bananas require careful handling as the fruit is very susceptible to physical damage and needs proper (cool) storage to avoid quick ripening and decay. After the bunch arrives at the packing house, it is dehanded and broken into clusters of 46 fingers each. Both hands and clusters are washed, usually by passing through tanks containing disinfectant solutions, and packed in cardboard boxes holding 1218 kg on average. Modern refrigerated ships, equipped with holds that feature controlled temperature and humidity, transport the boxed fruit from the producing countries to distant markets. Temperature during transport is extremely critical: between 13 and 14°C guarantees that fruit will reach its destination in optimum conditions, whereas a short exposure to 12°C or colder temperatures will damage the fruit beyond repair by deteriorating its taste.

According to export trade figures, the major supplying countries can be divided into three groups: 1) the Dollar area, including most Latin American countries (where the trade is largely in the hands of multinationals like Chiquita, Dole, or Del Monte); 2) the ACP area, named for the African-Caribbean-Pacific countries that were signatories of the 1975 Lomé Convention and later treaties with the European Union (EU) designed to protect their economy, largely based on agricultural products; and 3) European producers, particularly the Canary Islands (Spain), the French West Indies, and the Portuguese islands of Madeira.

The main importers are Japan (mostly served by the Philippines), the United States, and Canada (supplied almost exclusively by the Dollar area countries), and the European Union (shared among all the major supplying groups by virtue of the Common Market Organization's banana regulations, which broadly follow the World Trade Organization precepts regarding free trade while safeguarding the traditional economies of ACP countries and EU ultraperipheral regions). Organic production is of increasing importance to import markets and, as is happening with other products, its impact on world trade should be felt in the near future.

About 95 percent of the world export trade is based on Cavendish bananas, but plantains are also the subject of recent interest, especially in Europe because of the burgeoning immigrant population of chiefly African and Latin American origin. Other specialty or exotic bananas, particularly those with red peels and/or flesh, but also apple ("Manzano"), baby banana ("Bocadillo" or "Pisang Mas"), and ice cream ("Lady Finger") types are commercialized on a small scale to satisfy niche markets.

See also Africa ; Caribbean ; Fruit .


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Víctor Galán Saúco

In nature all species, plants and animals, are diploids; that is, they have a chromosome number of 2n, formed by the contribution of n chromosomes (genome) from each progenitor. For diverse reasons and by various natural genetic paths, plants with different levels of ploidy do appear sporadically (e.g., n haploids; 3n triploids; 4n tetraploids, etc.), and a side effect of this natural process is the loss of fertility. In the case of the banana, the appearance of triploids has proven beneficial to the consumer, as seedless fruits are produced.

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