I guess the winter weather has me thinking about tropical foods. Recently my mind went to pineapples, and this month without planning I became intrigued by the banana. Over 100 million bananas are consumed yearly, making it the fourth largest agricultural product behind wheat, rice and corn. Americans average just over 26 pounds of bananas a year, while Ugandans with the largest volume of consumption eat on average 500 pounds of bananas a year.

All bananas are harvested as stage 1 bananas, still hard and green. They are then transported in shipping containers with a controlled or modified atmosphere environment that maintains an ideal temperature and limited oxygen gas to avoid the fruit from ripening. When the containers make it to a distribution center in the United States, the environment is again controlled to allow for the ripening of the banana. Bananas ripen through six additional stages as demonstrated in the chart. Bakers prefer stage seven bananas where the sweetness of the banana comes out. Supermarkets usually sell stage three and four bananas.

To keep bananas from over ripening after purchase, there are a few things you can do. First of all buy bananas that are not fully yellow, the green tipped bananas will take longer to reach their peak and start to change color and taste. A second way to preserve bananas is to store them at room temperature; since the refrigerator is cold this will speed up the breakdown of the cells within the banana. Another practice to employ is to utilize a banana holder or hanger. This avoids them from bumping and bruising which will speed up the breakdown. You can also wrap the tips with plastic wrap to avoid oxygen from reaching the stem. This can actually add a week of shelf life to a banana. Another storage technique is to keep them away from other produce that might produce ethylene gas and to not store them in sealed bags because this will not allow the ethylene gas to escape. This gas speeds up ripening. Once the banana is ripe you should store it in the refrigerator as this will inhibit further ripening, even if the peels turn a black color.

Most people understand that bananas contain a lot of potassium, which is why it is a staple at tennis matches due to the potassium. Their potassium replaces some of the nutrients sweated out, and they provide energy without weighing down the stomach. If you are a tennis fan I am sure you watched the spectacle around Maria Sharapova’s father, Yuri, miming for her to eat a banana from stands in 2006. Although bananas do contain potassium, it actually is relatively low compared to some other common foods such as beans, milk, apricots, carrots, bell peppers and sweet potatoes.

Few people realize that the potassium bananas naturally contain is Potassium-40, which is a radioactive isotope of potassium. Bananas are also the only fruit to contain the amino acid Tryptophan and Vitamin B-6, which together produce serotonin in the body.

Bananas as we now know them are on the verge of going extinct. Almost all of the bananas produced are from one type of plant, the Cavendish. Unfortunately, when an industry is based on one variety, when disease hits it can wipe out a whole crop. In the early 1900’s the banana of choice was the Gros Michel variety. A fungus, Panama Disease, came about and killed off all of the banana trees at the time. This was when the industry switched to the Cavendish. Unfortunately, there is a strain of the fungus now attacking this variety.

Other parts of the banana tree are used as well as the “finger” of the plant. The finger is what the individual fruit is called. This comes from the hand, which is what the grouping you buy is called. This comes from the bunch, which is a compilation of 20-30 hands, the product harvested from the tree. Besides these parts, the leaves are commonly used in many Equatorial cuisines. Leaves are flexible, large and waterproof which makes them an integral part of cuisines and meals as either plates or disposable food containers and as a vessel for foods steamed in water or directly in fire. The core of the tree, which is part of the trunk, is also used is some cuisines, notably in the National Dish of Myanmar formerly Burma, Mohinga, which is a national soup.

Like most people I know I always peeled the banana from the tip, the part that connects it to the hand. I changed that after an international student of mine showed me how they eat it in her country, by peeling from the opposite end. So much easier.