Mutant bananas: Enjoy them while you can

Two hours of banana research is so worth it.


If there’s anything I hate more than bananas, it’s banana-flavored things. Have you ever wondered why banana Laffy Taffy tastes so weird? Aside from the fact that artificial flavoring never tastes like the actual thing, the average faux banana candy recipe was based off of the banana our great-grandparents grew up eating – not the kind we eat nowadays.

You see, up until the early 1960s everyone enjoyed the Gros Michel banana. It was apparently a lot sweeter and had a stronger scent than the species we find in grocery stores today. Unfortunately, this popular fruit was driven almost to extinction when it was invaded by a fungus called Panama disease. It can only be found today in exotic markets and Southern Asia.

So what bananas are we eating now? Hank Green, one of the spokespeople and researchers for SciShow on Youtube, lovingly referred to them as “sterile mutants,” which isn’t far off, considering we’re essentially eating cloned fruit. The Cavendish banana, an unpopular Chinese variety, was the replacement for the Gros Michel, as it was surprisingly resistant to Panama. Although the Cavendish was considered far less tasty compared to the Gros Michel, the subpar species soon grew to be the most widespread all over the world.

So how do you feel now that you know you’ve grown up eating a mutant fruit?”

Since then, a lot of fun science has been going on. Thanks to genetic engineering, the Cavendish was transformed from a subpar variety to the banana we know and love today. Such advancements include the disappearance of seeds (banana plants are grown from stem clippings), which means that every single banana the average high school student has had the same exact genetic makeup. While this is terrific for shipping and storing, it’s also terrible for the banana’s immune system.

A new, more virulent strain of Panama disease is springing up again. It is now easier for the pathogen to invade our precious bananas because the fungus only has to figure out how to break into one banana – the rest is cake. Thankfully, scientists are already working on developing bananas completely resistant to the virus.

So how do you feel now that you know you’ve grown up eating a mutant fruit? You can join the fight against GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and try to track down an obscure banana stand that sells other varieties, or you can just sit back and enjoy the Cavendish while you can. I know I’ll be doing the latter, because as much as I hate the taste of bananas, I need my potassium.

I spent approximately two hours researching for this column, and I came across some interesting sources. Check out the New York Times for a great article, listen to NPR, or watch Hank Green on SciShow. Those are the best of the crop.