To us here in Britain, a banana is just a fruit with a slippery skin; a tasty snack wrapped in a practical joke. In other countries, however, they take it much more seriously – it may be a funny looking fruit with a funny sounding name, but millions of people rely on the banana just to stay alive.
Bendy yellow bananas provide food and income for entire nations, but that’s not the only interesting thing about them. The fruit is radioactive, it’s an endangered species, and there’s one country in the world where each person eats nearly 200kg of them a year. Here are some surprising banana facts to consider next time you’re slicing one into a sandwich.
1) Over twenty percent of the world’s bananas are grown in India, but they’re not even in the top ten banana-exporting countries. They must really like bananas – they’re keeping them all for themselves. The world’s biggest exporters of bananas are Ecuador, who generously share over half their crop with other countries.
2) Bananas are radioactive. Each one contains about half a gram of radioactive potassium and the fruit is sometimes used to explain quantities of radiation. For example: two weeks after Fukushima’s nuclear power plant was hit by the Japanese tsunami, the Fukushima Town Hall had received a BED (Banana Equivalent Dose) of 1,000 – the same amount of radiation as if the town hall had eaten 1,000 bananas.
Scientists continue to argue over whether the BED is an effective communication tool, but the measure certainly makes the terrorist threat of a dirty bomb seem a lot less frightening.
3) Over 100 million tonnes of bananas are produced every year, making it the world’s most popular fruit. Some will say that more tomatoes are produced (and this is correct) but the tomato is a salad ingredient that is categorised as a fruit only in the minds of tedious pedants. Around the world, bananas are a staple food for millions of people – the fruit is considered to be the fourth most important crop after rice, wheat and maize.
4) Bananas originated in Malaysia, where they’re called “pisang” (possibly because of their colour). Pisang were grown around Asia and Africa before being exported to the Caribbean and, today, most of our bananas are imported from Central America. During WWII, when transatlantic supplies were cut off, bananas were scarce in Britain and the phrase “Yes, we have no bananas” became popular. This phrase came from a song of the same name that had been a big hit in America during their banana shortage of the 1920s. Those who’ve never heard it will be surprised to learn that, for many years, the song “Yes, we have no bananas” was the biggest selling sheet music in history. Those who have heard it will be even more surprised.
5) The most expensive bananas in the world can be found in Australia – up to $15 per kilogram. The Australian government has banned imports of bananas, meaning that any problem with their own harvest reduces supply and results in huge price rises.
6) Uganda has the highest per capita consumption of bananas in the world. The average citizen munches through 191kg of the fruit every year – roughly three bananas a day. They’re so important to the country’s diet that the word Ugandans use for food, “matoke”, is also the name of their banana-based national dish.
It might be worth noting that Uganda is home to most of the world’s mountain gorillas. Surely, if their meals were also taken into account, it would push the country’s banana consumption figures through the roof.
7) Bananas as we know them may soon be extinct – and it’s happened before. Until the 1950s, the Gros Michel variety was top banana, but it was effectively wiped out by Panama disease and had to be replaced by the Cavendish (the banana we enjoy today). The Cavendish variety is similar to the Gros Michel, but a little bit smaller and with a taste that’s less bananary. Now Panama disease is back, freshly evolved, and attacking the Cavendish – if a viable alternative isn’t found soon it will mean no more smoothies for us (and potentially millions of people starving).
8) A bunch can contain over 400 bananas – not just five or six, like I thought. What’s sold in shops is actually called a hand (the bananas are the fingers); hands can have up to 20 bananas and there can be 20 hands in a bunch. I’ll do the maths for you – it’s 400 bananas. The largest ever bunch of bananas weighed 130kg and contained 473 bananas. It was grown in 2001 in the Canary Islands. Nobody knows why.
Photo credits: Steve Hopson, mckaysavage, Martijn vdS, (rinse), Tabsinthe, melalouise, US Army Africa and Wm Jas