your nutritional guide to bananas: 11 reasons you should find them appealing

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

For such an innocent-looking fruit, bananas sure have stirred up a lot of controversy in the nutritional community lately. Depending on who you ask, bananas are either an amazing addition to your diet or part of one of the biggest health myths of all time. The facts align more with the first camp, but the latter camp does make a valid point.

The problem is that people fail to think about bananas in context. Namely, they are easy to grow sustainably, yield a ton of product at harvest, are easy to ship, and are widely available throughout most of the world. Best of all, they taste delicious! You won’t have to twist anyone’s arm to get them to bite into the sweet yellow treat that comes in its own package.

Considering their low price, deliciously versatile flavor and wide availability, bananas absolutely deserve praise for their nutritional content. No, they are not as rich in potassium or fiber as many other foods, but a person can still eat foods like spinach and butternut squash for meals while enjoying a banana as a tasty snack or a welcome addition to other foods.

As a staple food in many impoverished countries, bananas and plantains also provide a critical nutritional supplement at a low price. So, you should be able to enjoy bananas guilt-free without someone chiming in with a “well, actually…” to ruin your snack time. If you want to know more specifically why you should be able to peel in peace, read on to learn some interesting facts about bananas as well as the 11 biggest health benefits of bananas.

What, exactly, is a banana?

Because the curved yellow fruit is so common, everyone thinks they are familiar with bananas, but how much do they actually know? For instance, did you know that a banana is technically a berry? Or that, technically, the “tree” a banana grows upon actually counts as a large herb?

Because so few of us live in a climate that can produce bananas, we may not realize just how much information we lack about bananas. To set the record straight, let us start with the banana plant, which are all parts of the Musa genus of plants. Banana plants are not woody, meaning they do not create dense, hard fibers and form a hard trunk.

Instead, banana “tree trunks” are actually pulpy stems. These plants grow throughout the tropics, where they form an important role as a food source and more. For instance, many cultures in Southeast Asia and Africa use banana leaves as a type of plate, as packaging, or as a wrap to use when grilling foods like raw meats.

Along with palm leaves, banana leaves are commonly used as structural components by primates, including humans. Rural tropical cultures may use banana leaves as a thatched roof material, for instance, while apes in the wild may use them as a material for their nest.

To create fruit, the banana plant first puts out a large violet bud. This bud is ringed with banana-shaped flowers within each layer. As the bud opens, the rings of long, curved flowers are exposed one at a time. Unlike many plants, these flowers will transform into fruit even if they are not fertilized, greatly improving the production of banana fruit since there is never a question of which flowers will bear fruit.

The time in between when flower buds appear and banana bunches can be harvested is usually around three months [1]. Surprisingly, the time it takes to grow a tiny, cloned banana plant from separation of the mother to harvesting banana bunches is only about a year, making it one of the quickest and highest-yielding agricultural products to come from tree-like growth.

Why we have seedless bananas — a brief history

You may have noticed that in the previous paragraph, we used the word “clone” rather than “seedling” to describe the newly grown banana plant. That is because all bananas are grown using asexual production, including the planting of new trees. This system evolved because without it, bananas would be nearly impossible to eat.

Take a look at this wild banana pictured here. Notice something? It is absolutely chock full of large seeds! On top of that, the amount of flesh made is much smaller, and the banana has a tiny size overall. This dramatic change in size happens because the plant spends so much energy creating seeds.

To the average wild animal, this amount of seeds does not phase them. Toucans, elephants and fruit bats all love wild bananas. They eat them whole, defecating the seeds around the forest to spread the plant and help new generations grow. Contrary to stereotypes, monkeys and apes do not seem to favor these wild bananas. Possibly, like us, they are not happy to put so much work into picking out seeds for so little edible fruit!

This aversion to seeds is no doubt what caused the banana to become likely the first domesticated plant in human history. Archaeological evidence in Papua New Guinea shows that the oldest examples of banana domestication date back over 7,000 to 10,000 years ago [2]. Humans likely identified banana plants with the smallest and least amount of seeds and began selectively cultivating and cross-breeding them.

Later in the 15th century, Portuguese sailors began introducing bananas to Brazil [3]. Mirroring the large-scale production model of sugar plantations, bananas began to be grown in larger quantities and distributed throughout the region. These bananas were grown to provide shade to sensitive cacao and coffee plants and also as a cheap, abundant food source for plantation slave labor.

In the mid 19th century, French botanists began to cultivate a particular cross-breed of banana known for its easy-to-ship thick skin, substantial flesh and delicious, sweet flavor. This “Gros Michel” or “Big Mike” cultivar of Musa acuminata was the first banana to be mass-produced and exported all over the world, especially as refrigeration took off [4].

Unfortunately, the monoculture nature of growing just one type of plant asexually made the Gros Michel vulnerable to a fungus called disease, which rotted fruit and killed plants, devastating the banana industry. The Gros Michel was eventually replaced with the Cavendish cultivar, which is longer and starchier but not as sweet.

But why did we spend so much time and effort trying to grow bananas? Well, as mentioned before, they yield a lot of fruit with relatively minimal inputs. On top of that, though, they have many excellent nutritional properties in addition to a unique type of sweet, fruity flavor. To understand why bananas are still popular today, consider the following 11 health benefits of bananas below.

1. Relatively low in calories and fat

Make no mistake, bananas are sweet and sugary tasting when ripe. Yet, a medium-sized (118g) banana only has 105 calories, and just 0.4 grams of fat [5]. Additionally, while it is true that a banana does have a fairly high sugar content of 14 grams when ripe, it also has 3 grams of dietary fiber — 12 percent of the daily recommended value!

You do not have to eat bananas when they are ripe, either. By eating them before they ripen, less starch is converted into sugar, further lowering their sugar count while greatly raising their dietary fiber content [6]. Green bananas can be enjoyed similar to how unripe plantains are prepared by cutting them into slices, frying them lightly in oil, and then seasoning them with a pinch of salt.

2. Could help regulate blood glucose, appetite

In terms of glycemic index — a measurement of how quickly food is digested and adds sugar to your bloodstream — bananas are a fairly low 42-58, depending on how ripe they are [6]. This low index is because bananas’ high sugar content is balanced out with pectin and resistant starch, two substances that slow down digestion.

As a result, eating a banana can give you energizing calories without causing issues related to spiking blood sugar, such as fatigue or jitteriness. Note that this benefit may not apply to diabetics, who must watch their glucose intake carefully and should consult their doctor before making modifications to their diet.

3. Aids in digestion

The aforementioned substances — resistant fiber in unripe bananas and pectin in ripe bananas — helps the fruit keep its shape but can also aid in promoting healthy digestion. Both substances help slow the rate of digestion, moderating blood sugar as indicated above but also providing benefits for complete digestion of food.

Resistant starches are not digested by the body but can be digested by the helpful bacteria in our digestive tract — our “gut flora.” Feeding these bacteria can help regulate digestion, lower inflammation and prevent disease [8]. Similarly, pectin may help the body fight against certain types of colon cancer [9].

4. An excellent source of potassium

Yes, bananas do provide a substantial source of potassium! If you are eating other rich sources of potassium, such as sweet potatoes and squash, then excellent! But unfortunately, 98 percent of all Americans do not get enough potassium in their diet [10]. Supplementing their levels with delicious, snackable foods like bananas can help boost their levels.

On average, a medium-sized banana has 422 mg of potassium, enough to satisfy 12 percent of your daily recommended value [5]. The body uses potassium for a variety of reasons, including using it to keep blood pressure low, avoiding hypertension [11]. Potassium can also reduce your risk of a stroke by 27 percent [12], according to one study and reduce your risk of both stroke and heart disease according to another [13].

5. A great source of vitamin B6 and other nutrients

Another area bananas excel at is providing vitamin B6. This nutrient is essential for many biological functions, and it can also improve memory retention and intellectual performance. A study of 70 men over the age of 54 by Tufts University found that higher vitamin B6 concentrations were correlated to better scores on memory tests [14].

In total, a single medium banana can supply 22 percent of the daily needed value of vitamin B6 [5]. A banana can also supply you with 16 percent of your daily manganese intake, eight percent of your needed magnesium and 17 percent of your recommended intake of vitamin C.

Bananas may also be a great source of two powerful antioxidants: catechins and dopamine [15, 16]. Antioxidants like these help control free radicals in the body, which can cause damage to cellular tissues and can even contribute to your risk for cancer. Consuming antioxidants from bananas can therefore help bodies fight against heart disease, autoimmune disease, cancer, and the effects of aging [17].

6. Can help control appetite and manage weight loss

Enjoy a banana with breakfast to better your waistline and your immune system.

The high fiber and pectin content of bananas can help people feel fuller after just a light snack. They can use bananas as an alternative to unhealthier snacks to keep their appetite at bay between meals while providing significant nutrition. Since bananas only have 100 calories but are quite delicious, they can help individuals manage their calorie intake and pace their meals throughout the day.

7. Can help improve your mood

Bananas may actually have a balancing effect on mood! While the dopamine obtained from eating bananas cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to act as a stimulant, eating a large banana can provide 12 mg each of tyrosine and tryptophan [14]. These amino acids are used as building blocks for neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, the latter of which can actually be used to regulate mood.

People who do not get enough of these two amino acids ted to have issues with focus, stress, and anxiety. Getting your needed amount through foods like bananas can help you stay relaxed and could even help you sleep better at night since tryptophan can also be used to create melatonin, which helps regulate sleep cycles.

8. The perfect workout snack

With its medium glycemic index, high sugar count and low calories, a banana is the perfect snack before, during, or after a workout. You can replenish energy levels without having blood sugar spike while obtaining a small amount of protein. You also get minerals like potassium and magnesium, which help reduce soreness after a workout and aid in the building of new proteins that strengthen your muscles.

In terms of replenishing the electrolytes you need, research shows that bananas are just as good — if not better — than drinking a sugary sports drink [18]. When consumed with an equivalent amount of water to the sports drink, study participants recovered just as quickly and had the same concentration of needed metabolites.

9. Helps recover from digestive issues

The BRAT diet is a simple, bland diet used to indicate the types of foods that help patients recover from gastrointestinal or digestive issues. Constipation, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and cramps are all commonly treated with foods similar to those in the acronym B-R-A-T. Bananas are the first letter of the diet, and because of their medium caloric content and tendency to aid in digestion, they are still commonly recommended to patients in distress.

Infants and children in particular can benefit from bananas when they have bowel issues at a young age. Since children may be too picky to eat certain foods, the delicious flavor of bananas is an easy sell. Bananas can also be mashed up to form a digestible “porridge” or even frozen and blended to create an ice-cream-like treat, encouraging kids to get regular again.

10. Promote kidney health

Among its many other uses, the body uses potassium to help reduce the risk of calcium deposits in urine, decreasing the incidence of kidney stones. A study of 61,000 Swedish women between 40 and 76 years old also found that those who ate 2.5 servings of fruits or vegetables per day had a 40 percent lower risk of kidney cancer [19].

Within the study, women who ate bananas had a particularly beneficial effect. Those who ate bananas four to six times weekly cut their risk of kidney cancer in half [19]. However, patients with kidney failure or who require dialysis are not recommended to eat bananas because their high mineral content can make kidney function more difficult.

11. Bananas taste great and have a variety of culinary uses

As we have mentioned before, one of the biggest reasons bananas should be praised for their nutritional content is not because they have high nutrition relative to other foods but because they taste better. People with picky dietary preferences who find it difficult to motivate themselves to eat more healthy foods like vegetables generally enjoy bananas.

Bananas are also easy to convince someone to enjoy, especially if added to existing favorite foods. You can add bananas to breakfast cereal, fry them for a delicious dessert, make banana bran muffins to up your fiber intake, add them as a cheap ingredient in smoothies, eat them raw with peanut butter for the perfect workout replenisher, and use them to improve pretty much any other food.

The Sati line

With a host of health benefits and a highly-interesting agricultural history, bananas are jam packed with as much secrets as they have nutrition. Eating them green also provides even more health benefits than one might expect, making them incredibly versatile and earning their spot in lunchboxes and kitchens the world over. So enjoy your bananas guilt-free, and maybe even try bringing them along as snacks more often, now that you know all the good they can do!


References
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  3. “The History of the Banana: In the Beginning…” Early History of the Banana. N.p., n.d.
  4. “The History of the Banana: Is the End Nigh?” Modern History of the Banana. N.p., n.d.
  5. “Banana Nutrition, Benefits, Concerns & Recipes.” Dr. Axe (2017).
  6. “Green Bananas: Good or Bad?” Authority Nutrition (2016).
  7. Glycemic Index. The University of Sydney (2017).
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  12. Seth, Arjun, et al. “Potassium Intake and Risk of Stroke in Women With Hypertension and Nonhypertension in the Women’s Health Initiative.” Stroke 45.10 (2014): 2874-880.
  13. D’elia, L., G. Barba, F. P. Cappuccio, and P. Strazzullo. “Potassium Intake, Stroke, And Cardiovascular Disease: A Meta-Analysis Of Prospective Studies.” Rational Pharmacotherapy in Cardiology 7.3 (2011): 371-81.
  14. Writer, Leaf Group. “Bananas as Brain Food.” Healthy Eating. SF Gate (2016).
  15. Kanazawa, Kazuki, and Hiroyuki Sakakibara. “High Content of Dopamine, a Strong Antioxidant, in Cavendish Banana.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 48.3 (2000): 844-48.
  16. Someya, Shinichi, Yumiko Yoshiki, and Kazuyoshi Okubo. “Antioxidant compounds from bananas (Musa Cavendish).” Food Chemistry 79.3 (2002): 351-54.
  17. Obrenovich, M. E., et al. “Antioxidants in health, disease and aging.” CNS & neurological disorders drug targets. U.S. National Library of Medicine (2011): 192-207.
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