Bananas (As We Know Them) Are At Risk. How Does This Affect The Home Cook?

October 12, 2017

Less than a century ago, importers had to hype bananas with aggressive advertising. Take, for example, Miss Chiquita Banana, seemingly crafted in the image of popular performer Carmen Miranda, or a bizarre 1947 cookbook showcasing all the ways bananas could slat into the era’s already bizarre recipes (ham banana rolls with cheese sauce, anyone?). It is now a staple of modern American kitchens, the go-to raw snack some in the health-conscious set treat like the original superfood. They’re the cornerstones of countless baked goods, the bases of multiple cookbooks. And more and more, they’re seen as a healthy, natural, and vegan-friendly alternative to eggs, sugar, milk, and other dairy in all forms of cooking.

All of which raises the question: What will banana enthusiasts, or even occasional banana bread fans, do when the fruit as we know it vanishes? What would we make in a pinch if not banana bread? Because environmental science and botany experts believe this is a distinct possibility within our lifetimes.

Photo by Flickr/Mike Mozart

No matter how different they look in size or hue, almost every banana in the US is nearly identical. They’re all Cavendishes, an asexual cultivar that’s been cloned over and over into a particularly homogenous monoculture. That’s great when it comes to delivering a consistently mild, hardy, and productive banana. But it’s terrible for disease resistance. As soon as a pathogen hits one Cavendish, it can hit every Cavendish worldwide, and hard. That’s exactly what’s happening now.

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Cavendishes have long been resistant to “Panama Disease,” a notorious banana blight. But in the 1990s, a new strain of this disease emerged in Southeast Asia. A relentless killer, it can demolish entire crops. It stays in the affected soil for years. And it spreads so easily, it’s all but impossible to quarantine. The disease has yet to hit Latin America, which supplies 82 percent of the world’s exported bananas. But expert consensus seems to be that it’s likely only a matter of time until it does. When that happens, Cavendishes won’t disappear from the face of the earth. But slowly, they’ll grow rarer and more expensive, until they just fade from grocery shelves altogether.

Optimists may put their hopes in the power of science to find a cure for Panama Disease, develop some bulletproof new quarantine system, or genetically engineer Cavendishes to withstand it. All of that is possible. But research on these fronts is not moving quickly, nor does it look like it will pick up soon, perhaps not until it’s too late. For now, rather than dream of magically maintaining the status quo, it’s best to figure out how the Cavendish can be replaced in the kitchen.

There’s no single replacement for the Cavendish banana. The right substitution depends on what you’re using it for. But if one is mainly using a banana as an agent to generally sweeten, thicken, or bind a dish, or for nutrition, there are an almost infinite number of potential replacements. As Darryl Mosher of the Culinary Institute of America told me, “With cooking or baking, we can alter texture, levels of acidity, bitter, and sweet with technique or applications.”

How would these banana bread blondies become "banana" bread blondies? Photo by James Ransom

For thickening baked goods or smoothies, consider avocados, silken tofu, or dairy if you’re not vegan. They will provide a familiar gentle creaminess. (For smoothies specifically, ground oatmeal, nuts, or chia seeds can work as well.) For some recipes, canned pumpkin, mashed sweet potatoes, or reduced applesauce can work too, depending on how much sweetness one wants to add or how sensitive one is to stronger flavors. If one is looking for natural sweetness, then raw honey or pureed fruits like dates or figs work just as well.

Bananas are unique in their ability to provide all of these factors at the same time. But, as Institute of Culinary Education creative director Michael Laiskonis points out, a similar overall effect can be achieved by mixing sweeteners, and binders—say, honey or nectar with a mellow-flavored creamy, starchy base, like pureed beans. And if one is just looking for something else to throw into a dish to boost their potassium, for which bananas are notoriously useful, a number of foods beat them on that count, from potatoes to yogurt to Swiss chard.

Because there are so many other binders, sweeteners, and thickeners out there, many folks aren’t just using bananas as utilitarian tools. They want banana flavor, which is harder to substitute for.

The simplest solution is banana flavoring. According to Nicolette Spudic, a food consultant who has written extensively about the flavoring industry, it’s cheap and easy to synthesize common artificial banana flavors today. Mixed with mellow thickeners, a good flavoring could wholly replace bananas. As Mosher says, “you don’t even need a banana to have something that tastes like banana bread.”

But as anyone who’s ever tasted a Cavendish banana and anything artificially banana–flavored can attest, existing flavorings taste nothing like what we’re familiar with. This isn’t necessarily because flavor science is bad, though. Although no one can prove this was intentional, artificial banana tastes like other cultivars—including the bigger, sweeter, creamier Gros Michel that used to rule the world before an older strain of Panama disease wiped it out, elevating Cavendishes.

“There’s currently no need to develop a better banana flavoring,” says Spudic, because real bananas are still so cheap and common no one’s clamoring for a high-fidelity replacement. “Once the market begins to see the effects of banana decline,” though, she adds, “I can assume that a better substitute will hit the market.” It’ll just take a little more time and effort to mellow the existing flavors out to equal a gentle Cavendish profile.

“Obviously there can be a synthetic solution,” says Mosher. “But that’s not where we want to put our food system. We want to use a fresh ingredient.” Mosher speaks for the Culinary Institute of America, but he might as well speak for a huge chunk of modern, anti-synthetic consumers. Others might object on principle to the idea of making banana bread using another binding agent, like bean puree, combined with a flavoring they’d otherwise be fine with, Laiskonis adds.

The people who really stand to suffer are those who live in nations where bananas make up a huge part of the local economy.

For these skeptics, Mosher recommends a surprisingly simple solution: use other types of bananas. There are hundreds upon hundreds of other cultivars out there. Many of them aren’t grown en masse, and often only serve regional markets, due to consumer taste or logistical shipping issues. Texture, sweetness, and nutrition profiles can vary wildly from one cultivar to the next, as can their durability. However, major importers like Chiquita and Dole already have supply lines bringing alternative bananas to (mostly) specialty shops in the United States, from the super mushy and overpoweringly saccharine Ladyfinger, Orito, or Pisang Mas, to the tougher and tarter Manzano, to the chunky and sweet-and-sour Burro, to entirely starch plantains, although we often don’t think of that last and most common category as a type of banana.

“They’re not as prolific and desirable as the Cavendish,” says Mosher, largely because their flavors and textures are as foreign to our palates as artificial flavoring mixed in which neutral thickeners. “But they are very useable.” All one has to do, Mosher argues, is play around with each cultivar, diluting out its thickness or flavor, or making it creamier and sweeter with other thickeners and sugars or sugar substitutes. Just like using a regular Cavendish, you can adjust texture and sweetness to taste while maintaining the common banana flavor in the background.

Unfortunately, this replacement tactic is speculative at best. Many other banana cultivars are too expensive, delicate, or otherwise finicky to create mass markets. And many that are will likely be susceptible to the new strain of Panama Disease, an extremely potent pathogen, as well. So shifting from one type of banana to another, or several others, is not as easy as it sounds.

There’re also are no simple guidelines for playing with alternative cultivars, much less on what substitute binders, sweeteners, or thickeners to use in any given situation. Everything that can be said about replacing bananas is speculative and subject to experimentation for the same reason Spudic believes artificial banana still tastes so bad: There’s no need to systematically explore this yet. Even Moser seems to be hoping someone will just figure out a way to save the Cavendish—although he does acknowledge that as of yet there doesn’t seem to be any solution in sight.

The only thing there’ll definitely be no replacement for, though, is the raw, whole Cavendish. That’s the loss that will be most keenly felt, too. “If you look at the usage of bananas,” said Mosher, “less than five percent are used in baking.” (This may not be an absolute statistic; as of publication, it could not be verified for general consumer habits. But think about it: How often do you see bananas enjoyed straight out the peel?)

But there is a chance that not only will we be unable to save whole Cavendishes, we’ll also be unable to replace them a solid synthetic or alternative banana hack. In that bleak future, banana-laden treats may just fade away alongside bananas. That may sound like unfathomable fate, but it’s not. Ingredients come and go, as anyone who’s read a medieval cookbook will know. (I mean, where could one conceivably get a bustard today?) And many modern banana recipes have already faded away as tastes changed—like the aforementioned ham banana rolls with cheese sauce or salmon salad tropical with bananas, recorded in that 1947 cookbook. Besides, says Laiskonis, “how often do we bake with bananas just to use up old bananas?”

The fade out of bananas could give us the kick in the pants we need to replace one go-to tropical fruit with another equally delicious and nutritious, and perhaps more genetically robust, option. It could be a call to culinary innovation. Laiskonis thinks we’d do especially well to explore other neglected tropical fruits like the cherimoya or soursop, “because you still get some of those interesting banana-like flavors, but with some other nuances.”

One way or another, most cooks will survive the banana apocalypse. It’s just a matter of how much banana we can Frankenstein back together on the other side. The people who really stand to suffer from this shift are those who live in nations where bananas make up a huge part of the local economy, as in several Latin American nations. Or people in nations where bananas—not Cavendishes, but other potentially vulnerable varieties—make up a huge chunk of the average consumer’s daily calories. Finding a solution shouldn't be delayed because many of us can still enjoy making banana bread from darkening bananas. There's a lot more at stake.


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Mark Hay

Written by: Mark Hay

1 Comment

dinner A. October 12, 2017
Thanks for this thoughtful discussion. One perspective I'd like to add is that banana cultivation is terribly environmentally destructive -- it drives significant clearing of rainforests and is very pesticide intensive and polluting. We should all eat many fewer bananas regardless of how available or cheap they are; if they were priced according to their true cost they'd be a rare treat.