I don’t consider myself a picky eater, but there are certain things I just can’t swallow. Raw celery, for example, or cilantro. Another one is ripe bananas. When bananas turn bright yellow or start having those hideous brown spots, forget it. I have to throw the whole bunch away. I can’t even stand the smell. The only time I can eat the fruit is when the peel is still greenish — at least at the tips.
Apparently, that’s not how many of my friends eat their bananas. I’ve gotten into several heated conversations about optimal ripeness level — so I decided to investigate this and call up some scientists. Is there a best time to eat a banana? Does anything in the fruit change as it ripens?
First off, let’s make clear that I’m talking only about Cavendish bananas. That’s basically the only type of banana you can find in the US — at least for now. The Cavendish is being wiped out by a disease called Tropical Race 4, and that’s because the Cavendish has basically no genetic diversity. But around the world, hundreds of banana species exist — with different shapes, tastes, and colors. Yes, red bananas exist.
Bananas are known for being packed with nutrients — particularly potassium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, and fiber. As the fruit ripens, the concentration of these nutrients does not change, says David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University. The only thing that does change is that the starch turns into sugar — mainly fructose and glucose. So the longer you wait, the sweeter the banana is going to taste. That doesn’t mean that eating a greener banana is healthier, because your digestive system is eventually going to turn the starch into sugar anyway, Levitsky says. So the calorie count doesn’t change.
However, eating a greener banana might have some slight added health benefits. That’s because it contains just a tiny bit more of a starch called resistant starch, which humans can’t digest but is loved by your good gut bacteria. “It’s the kind of starchy material that bacteria look to feed on,” says Nicholas Gillitt, vice president of nutrition research and director of the Dole Nutrition Institute. (Dole is one of the world’s biggest producers of fruits and veggies.)
So, if nutritional values basically don’t change as the banana ripens, why is the banana considered ripe and ready to eat when it’s bright yellow and freckled? (The Dole banana color guide says that the “full yellow” banana is the one with “great eating flavor,” while banana producer Chiquita says that “most people like their bananas when the peel is yellow or yellow with brown flecks.”) It might have to do with the eating standards that banana companies like Chiquita set before anyone in the US really knew what bananas were, says Dan Koeppel, author of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World.
Bananas were introduced to the United States as an import product around 1876, when they were also exhibited as an exotic fruit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. So at the turn of the century, bananas were a novel fruit and Americans didn’t know how to eat them and when, Koeppel says. “Chiquita really had to do a lot to build interest and educate people about bananas,” he says.
First off, Americans (and Europeans) had to learn that it was okay for proper ladies to eat phallic fruits, Koeppel says. In the late 1800s, postcards of nicely dressed ladies eating bananas were distributed all over. Other photos showed proper Victorian ladies cutting bananas with a knife to get rid of the embarrassing shape.
Then, Americans had to be taught about when the tropical exotic fruit is ripe and ready to eat. And for that, Chiquita made the Chiquita Banana jingle, which hit the airwaves in 1944; it was at times played 376 times a day on radio stations across the US, the Chiquita website says. Here’s how the song went:
I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say / Bananas have to ripen in a certain way / When they are fleck'd with brown and have a golden hue / Bananas taste the best and are best for you.
And here’s a version of the song turned into a cartoon, which appeared in movie theaters across the US, says Bettina Stier Scatamachia, Chiquita’s director of marketing.
As bananas became a staple of lunch boxes, and banana bread recipes flourished, the lyrics of the Chiquita jingle changed. In 1999, the song began highlighting the nutritional benefits of bananas instead. Apparently 50 years of banana-eating had familiarized America with the fruit’s ripening stages.
The problem is, I strongly disagree with Chiquita (and not just because the company was one of the most evil corporations in the world). When bananas “are fleck'd with brown and have a golden hue” I want to throw them in the trash can. But that’s okay. The best time to eat a banana really depends on your taste. Levitsky, the nutrition professor at Cornell, wants his banana bright yellow; brown spots are okay but no mushiness. My editor Liz Lopatto thinks all bananas are garbage. And I like them greenish — sometimes so green that peeling them is hard. I think everyone should agree with me, but apparently some don’t.
“If you eat a green banana, it’s like eating a raw potato,” Koeppel says. “If you eat it uncooked, it’s not going to be that much fun for people.”
Update March 29th 1:20PM ET: The article was updated to say that Chiquita was one of the most evil corporations in the world rather than still is. On March 27th, I was contacted by Reto Zangerl, a spokesperson for Chiquita International, who told me that Chiquita "has changed and developed within the past 25 years," investing in sustainability for example. As the link to the New York Times article I provide says, the troubled history of banana production in Latin America belongs to United Fruit Company, which was the precursor to Chiquita.
Update May 31st 10:00AM ET: This article was originally published on March 25, 2017 and has been updated to include video.