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August, 2009

The Banana Gauntlet

By Dennis Linden

Bananas are the most traded fruit in the world, a fact that becomes even more meaningful considering that this popular fruit is also one of the most delicate perishables to handle at every stage of a very complicated chain of distribution.

Behind those bright, perfectly even-colored displays of vibrant yellow that shoppers take for granted is a plantation-to-plate gauntlet that must be managed with precision at every stage of the journey. An entire shipment can be ruined for resale with a one degree variance in temperature during the two week trip that usually starts with a harvest somewhere in Central America and even those critical temperature requirements vary along the way. This is truly the ultimate risky business!

While the process is about the same for all banana varieties, this article will follow the type most popular and familiar to the U.S. consumer, the Cavendish. The majority of U.S. banana supplies are grown in the Central American countries of Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala and Honduras. Simply put, bananas are harvested by the bunch at a stage called mature-green when the fruit is very hard and bitter in taste with a starch to sugar ratio of approximately 20:1. The fruit is shipped in this green condition, first by boat and then refrigerated truck, to metropolitan consolidation centers throughout the country where it is ripened at special facilities designed expressly for this process and then disseminated to individual wholesalers and retail outlets. The system is designed to provide the consumer with fruit that will peak in flavor and ripeness within a day or two of its final purchase by flipping the original starch to sugar numbers measured at harvest to a sweet 1:20.

This sounds like a straightforward process, but the devil is in the details and starts with the first threat to quality, which comes at harvest time. When cut from its stalk, the bunch will immediately start to ooze a sticky substance called latex that will stain the fruit’s skin. Each bunch must rest on special trays, with the cut end pointed downward, until the flow of harmful latex stops. The bunch is then separated into clusters of 5-7 fingers and packed into specially lined cardboard cartons for shipment. The cartons of fruit are then loaded into an airtight, refrigerated sea container and most of the oxygen is removed to inhibit the fruit’s natural production of ethylene gas. The lack of ethylene slows the ripening process almost completely. Bananas are probably the most temperature sensitive fruit in the marketplace. The pulp temperature of each finger must be maintained at 56-58° during the voyage to this country; even a degree or two lower for a few hours will result in a dull smoky discoloration of the peel and dark brown streaks in the fruit. Higher shipping temperatures will trigger a fungus to develop that can also render the fruit unsalable.

Of course the ripening process cannot be stopped entirely, so each shipment arrives at port with a slightly different starch to sugar ratio. The job of a ripening facility involves two parts science and one part art. Based on the condition of the fruit on arrival, it must be judged how much ethylene gas, at what temperature, and humidity the fruit should be exposed to and for how long, in order to achieve the color and ripeness that a particular wholesale or retail company has ordered. The produce industry uses a 1-7 color scale, which is based on the percentage of solid yellow there is on the fruit. In fact, the bright yellow color that we are used to in our supermarkets is only achieved with this forced ripening process. If a banana were to ripen naturally on the plant, it would be a very greenish yellow. Its peel would also probably split open, the fruit would have a grainy, uneven texture and it could not be shipped such long distances.

The gauntlet of risk has one final leg to it, the retail grocery store. Bananas bruise and scar very easily from both rough handling by produce department personnel and the consumer on a quest for that perfect cluster of perfect fingers. Next time you are in a supermarket notice that most displays of bananas are single layered tiers of foam matting and the fruit clusters are never piled on top of each other. If you find an exception to the common display practice, choose only the fruit on the top of the display. The bruising that results from stacking bananas on top of each other is not visually detectible until the shopper ripens the fruit fully at home. Once home, store the fruit at room temperature and never in the refrigerator as the same chilling discoloration can occur from just a few hours in the crisper. If all the professionals along the way have done their jobs properly, your banana will cross the finish line with perfect flavor and ripeness in one or two days of purchase. And, now that you know the process, deserve the same applause as a marathon runner!