You’ve eaten a banana. You may be eating one right now. If you live in the U.S., it’s probable that you’ve eaten more bananas than any other type of fruit (save the oranges in your morning glass of juice) even though commercial bananas probably don’t grow anywhere close to your local supermarket.
According to FairTrade.net, Almost 100 million metric tons of bananas are consumed every year. Bananas are cheap, they taste good, and they’re convenient, but should you keep eating them? I quit bananas several years ago for a few reasons.
The Cavendish, the type of banana we’re most familiar with, is high in sugar. Per 100-gram serving, it contains MORE sugar than soda (12 grams to 9 grams). Of course, bananas’ sugars are naturally occurring and healthier than the junk in soda. But even though bananas are rich in fiber and potassium, they are a highly sweet fruit. The riper a banana gets, the sweeter, too.
While more than 15 percent of all bananas are Rainforest Alliance certified, which is helping to correct some issues in the banana industry, the majority of the bananas that are sold in the U.S. aren’t Fair Trade, or Rainforest Alliance certified. Banana plantations have been called out for using child labor, clear cutting massive swaths of our deteriorating rainforest, and implicated in political corruption, reports FairTrade.net. “Large corporations involved in banana production have historically had negative influence over Latin American governments in the countries where their plantations are based.”
And the plantations are not fun places to work, either, explains FairTrade.net: “In many plantations, work days can be very long, often between 12 to 14 hours with overtime unpaid. The majority of workers lack work security or protection against sudden lay-offs, and many employers only offer short contracts of six months or less.” But many people don’t have options. In regions where banana plantations have such a foothold on the local economy, the only jobs available are at the plantations.
Our beloved bright yellow Cavendish banana came to popularity in the wake of the variety Gros Michels, which was essentially wiped out more than half a century ago by the fungus Panama disease Tropical Race. Cavendish, though, is now being threatened by the same fungus it was thought to be resistant to. So that means more applications of stronger chemicals and greater risks from exposure. (Not just for the people who eat the bananas, but the workers too.)
The pesticide and fungicide thiabendazole has been found on more than 60 percent of bananas tested. According to the EPA, “in a rat subchronic study [on thiabendazole] , there were increases in liver and thyroid weights. Also, in a chronic dog study, thiabendazole produced a similar effect in increased liver weight.”
Other chemicals commonly found on bananas include Imazalil, 5-Hydroxythiabendazole, Azoxystrobin and o-Phenylphenol.
“If all the bananas grown in the world were placed end-to-end, the banana chain would circle the Earth 1,400 times,” says Chiquita’s website. Those bananas don’t just magically appear in your supermarket. According to Chiquita, the best-selling brand of bananas, the fruits for U.S. consumption are grown in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. Costa Rica is more than 3,600 miles from Los Angeles, where I buy my fruit. Whether they get here by boat, truck, train or plane, that’s a long way to travel on limited fossil fuel resources. And it seems kind of silly considering that no matter where you live in the U.S., there is seasonal fruit to be found.
While the Cavendish has come to symbolize bananas in our culture, there are many banana varieties. If you’re in Hawaii, Miami, or visiting one of the banana-growing countries, you can easily find heirloom varieties that are far less sweet than the Cavendish, and locally grown. Seek out organic varieties wherever you buy your bananas and support Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance certified, too.
With Cavendish now facing susceptibility to the deadly fungus that wiped out its predecessor, it’s possible that variety will also become obsolete from our diet, anyway. So we may have to break our banana addiction whether we like it or not. Why not start today?
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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Image: Steven Hopson