Banana: the world’s most popular fruit?

A banana is just a banana—chances are, you’ve seen them, you eat them, and you take them for granted. However, a very mundane thing can have a rich and flavorful backstory.

Banana: the world’s most popular fruit?

Crunching the banana numbers

Wherever you live in this world, you’ve most probably had a banana or seen one. Bananas are readily available in any geographical location (except for, maybe, Antarctica). When you think about fruits, chances are that bananas are the first thing that comes to mind.

So, does it mean that bananas are the first among fruits in the world?

Technically speaking, not exactly. If we are talking production numbers, number one is a tomato—and yes, tomato is considered a fruit by botanists (although nutritionists still count tomatoes as vegetables). The planet grows about 180 million tons of tomatoes yearly. Bananas come second with 120 million tons, followed by watermelons and apples (about 100 million and 80 million tons respectively).

So, the answer really depends on how you slice it. While some highbrows may not agree with you, it is perfectly fine to exclude tomatoes from fruits. And if you do, bananas indeed become number one!

The highbrows can’t argue with one thing, though: bananas are the most popular when it comes to international trade. Almost 20% of all produced bananas go to export, which amounts to global trade of 14 billion dollars a year. On the other hand, the tomatoes’ trade tally is only 9 billion. 

Whereas Asia is the largest producer of bananas (with India holding the crown among all countries), Latin America and the Caribbean region are the biggest exporters. The biggest importers are the USA, Germany, and Japan (though we still couldn’t find any numbers about Antarctica).

Read on to discover what makes bananas so tradeable, explore the variety of more than 1000 types of bananas, and marvel at how people use them besides just eating.

What makes bananas so desirable, importable, and shippable?

Although banana plants are usually called trees, the botanists once again come to mess things up: by their classification, banana is a herb. 

Scientifically speaking, the plant belongs to a genus called Musa. Its stem might look woody—but actually, it is made of huge leaf stalks.

Musa is native to Southeast Asia, and it mainly grows in warmer climates across the world. Its fruit—a banana—contains fiber, potassium, antioxidants, vitamins C and B6, and phytonutrients, making it an important food crop. Someone might have told you that bananas are radioactive. If so, relax. Technically, it is true: bananas are rich in potassium, and some of that is an unstable isotope K-40 that emits a tiny bit of radiation. However, you have much more potassium in your body (compared to a banana), so you are “radioactive” on even a higher level. Thus, the bananas’ radiation won’t harm you in any way—as well as that in spinach, salmon, avocados, and mushrooms, which are also rich in potassium.

Before a banana can reach you in a general store, it goes through various stages. After seedlings are planted, sprouting takes around 2 to 3 months; the flower appears in the sixth month. When the fruits become light green (from 9 to 12 months after planting), they are reaped.

Whereas many plants are seasonal, bananas can be collected all year long, growing in tropical and subtropical regions.

After the bananas are harvested, most of them go to local markets. However, some of them are transported to a pressing plant for export: there, the fruits are washed with water, arranged, gauged, and packed. When bananas are packed in a cardboard box, a number is placed on the case. This number is the personality code, which recognizes the farm where the banana was reaped, the pressing office, the date, and the pressing season. It then goes through a phytosanitary review or a similar trade assessment and is finally ready for shipping.

It requires a long time for bananas to cross the sea: up to two weeks. The fruits are transported in containers that keep the environment cold and ventilated.

Remember that bananas are harvested green? After arriving at a destination port, they are usually sent to a “ripening room”—a warehouse where ethylene gas is added. Ethylene gas is a natural hormone that stimulates the ripening process. Because of that, bananas continue to mature even after they get to a store shelf.

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