Gone are the days when apples were the most popular fruit in the United States. Since the 1970s, the mantle of most popular fruit has belonged to the banana. And not just any banana either. No, for millions of Americans, bananas mean Cavendish bananas—by far the most popular variety sold.
But whether you enjoy the ubiquitous Cavendish or prefer more exotic varieties like plantains or, ironically, the apple-flavored manzano, bananas are not only tasty but also good for you.
So let’s dig into what makes bananas so special, shall we?
Banana Nutrition Facts
Many people avoid bananas because they think they contain too many calories or sugar. But that’s not really the case when you consider your average medium banana contains around 100 calories and 3 grams of fiber, including resistant starch, which helps slow the absorption of sugar and avoid blood sugar spikes.
What’s more, bananas are cholesterol free and contain almost no sodium or fat. They’re also a good source of several important vitamins and minerals:
|23% of the RDA of potassium||15% of the RDA of magnesium|
|33% of the RDA of vitamin C||41% of the RDA of vitamin B6|
|3% of the RDA of vitamin A||10% of the RDA of riboflavin|
|11% of the RDA of folate||7% of the RDA of niacin|
|9% of the RDA of copper||30% of the RDA of manganese|
Health Benefits of Bananas
Along with vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, bananas are also an excellent source of phytochemicals—biologically active compounds that have been found to possess a variety of health benefits.
For example, phytonutrients are known to support the immune system, block the uptake of carcinogens, regulate hormones, and reduce the damaging effects of free radicals, which can lead to excessive levels of inflammation and diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Let’s now take a closer look at some of the many health benefits of bananas.
Bananas are excellent sources of the mineral potassium, which helps lower blood pressure by encouraging the kidneys to excrete excess sodium. This is important because Americans tend to consume too much sodium and not enough potassium, which leads to high blood pressure and a greater risk of heart disease and strokes.
Bananas are also rich in a group of phytochemicals called plant lipids, especially fatty acids and sterols. Along with dietary fiber, vitamin C, and the polysaccharide pectin (a type of soluble fiber), plant lipids have been shown in studies to block the absorption of LDL cholesterol, thus lowering the risk of heart disease.
Other phytochemicals, including polyphenols called catechins, are known to reduce levels of oxidized LDL—a particularly harmful form of LDL that’s associated with a higher risk of atherosclerosis.
Unripe bananas contain large amounts of a carbohydrate called resistant starch. As the name hints at, resistant starch resists digestion in the small intestine and travels relatively intact to the large intestine, where it ferments and acts as a prebiotic, or food for good bacteria.
These beneficial bacteria in turn help keep levels of harmful bacteria in check, which supports a healthy immune system and benefits overall health.
As an added plus, because it’s also considered a type of dietary fiber, resistant starch can help prevent and treat constipation.
The benefits of resistant starch aren’t limited to digestive health. In fact, this healthy carb supports healthy blood sugar levels too.
This is because resistant starch breaks down slowly in the large intestine, which means that blood sugar levels stay steady. What’s more, the beneficial bacteria in the gut naturally help maintain healthy blood sugar levels, so the more good bacteria that are fed, the more there are to support good glycemic control. And proper blood sugar control helps stave off insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
As you might imagine, the high amount of dietary fiber in bananas can make for an excellent weight-loss aid. Not only are foods rich in fiber known to keep you feeling fuller longer, but they also help you avoid blood sugar spikes, which can increase cravings.
The resistant starch and pectin found in bananas may also protect you from cancer. When gut bacteria feed on resistant starch, they create various short-chain fatty acids, which are known to reduce the risk of colon cancer. Moreover, pectin has been found in studies to induce cell death in a number of different types of cancer, including colon and prostate cancers.
Many of the polyphenols and carotenoids in bananas have also been found to have significant anti-cancer activity.
For example, the polyphenol quercetin has been shown in multiple studies to inhibit a variety of cancers, including breast, lung, kidney, colon, prostate, pancreatic, and ovarian cancers. Quercetin has also been found to increase the effectiveness of cancer therapy. And dietary intake of the carotenoid cryptoxanthin is associated with a lower risk of lung cancer.
Which Ripe Is Right?
When it comes to bananas and nutrition, not all bananas are created equal. So before you reach for your next banana, you should first consider its appearance.
You know an unripe banana when you see one. They’re those green bananas that you can’t wait to toss into a paper bag to speed up the ripening process. But as we’ve already seen, unripe bananas are rich in resistant starch, which has health benefits of its own. However, as green bananas begin to turn yellow, their fiber content begins to change.
Just Ripe Bananas
Once a banana turns yellow, it’s considered ripe. Unlike green bananas, much of the resistant starch in a ripe banana has converted into sugar, which makes these bananas much sweeter than their green counterparts. Ripe bananas also have higher levels of soluble fiber, including pectin, so these bananas are also a healthy choice.
Overly Ripe Bananas
When a banana turns from yellow to brown, it’s officially overly ripe. During this change from yellow to brown, even more of the starches turn into sugar until—if you let the process go on long enough—they begin to ferment. In fact, once bananas become completely brown, they turn into something we affectionately like to call wine nanners.
Even though brown bananas aren’t exactly the kind of banana you want to sit down and eat on its own, overly ripe bananas are the best choice for many of our favorite treats, from banana bread and muffins to smoothies, pudding, and oatmeal.
The Death of the Cavendish?
With all this talk of the many benefits of bananas, we almost forgot about the dark cloud looming on the horizon…
You see, although bananas are enjoyed throughout the world, they’re also susceptible to disease, particularly a root fungus known as Panama disease—a condition that’s already taken a heavy toll on banana production from Southeast Asia to Australia and Africa.
And since all Cavendish banana plants are clones, if one succumbs to the fungus…
For this devastation to take place, the fungus only needed to reach Latin America—which it did in 2018.
Confirmation of the fungus’ presence in soil samples in Colombia prompted the BBC to declare Cavendish bananas at risk of “imminent death.” After all, their predecessor, the Gros Michel, fell to Panama disease decades ago.
But at that time, Cavendish bananas were immune to the fungus—and then it mutated. And now it’s been confirmed in Latin America, where the vast majority of the world’s supply is grown.
And because decades of research have still not found a way to stop the fungus, there could soon come a time when the Cavendish banana is no longer among us. This would not only devastate banana growers but would also mean that consumers would have to get used to a whole new variety with a whole new flavor profile.
From smoothies, cereals, and bananas dipped in peanut butter to banana bread, muffins, and pudding, we’ve taken the Cavendish for granted for years. So enjoy these bananas while you can because our time together could be running out. How about whipping up the banana bread recipe below?