March 26, 2014 by Tess Riley
In the Guardian today, Damien Clarkson and I called for a cultural shift that celebrates the spotty banana. In the UK, most of us prefer to eat bananas before they fully ripen, which leads to huge levels of perfectly edible organic waste. So what are the alternatives? We outline a few here so have a read.
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Embrace the imperfect banana
In the UK, we love bananas! This exotic yellow fruit first started appearing on our shores little over a century ago, and it has been an enduring British love affair ever since. Today we consume over five billion bananas a year, making them the most popular fruit in the UK. But sadly the banana is also the most wasted fruit, accounting for 20% of the 15mn tonnes of food waste produced in the UK each year.
So how is it that a fruit we love so dearly takes up so much of our landfill? To explain this curiosity, we believe a re-examination of our relationship with this exotic fruit both as consumers and businesses is urgently needed.
Take 10 seconds to think about how you consume bananas? Do you like them green? Yellow with a greenish tint? Perfectly yellow with no spots? Or maybe yellow with plenty of black spots? We surveyed 10 strangers in the street about their banana preferences, with nine of them reaffirming our suspicions that in the UK we much prefer to consume our bananas either just turned yellow, or green with a hint of yellow. Now cast your mind back to the last time you bought bananas from the supermarket. What colour were they? Did they offer you any spotty yellow ones? We’re pretty sure the answer will be no. So surely ripe (yellow with black spot) bananas must be bad for us if supermarkets won’t stock them. In fact, you’re wrong. Eating bananas in a ripe state is perfectly healthy, and the choice of fruitarians – who live primarily off fruit – and professional athletes in need of quick, healthy sugars.
Why should we give the ripe banana a second hearing?
A banana is a high energy food packed full of carbohydrates, low in fat, and high in fibre and potassium. It’s no wonder we’ve gone nuts for it! Bananas also help us produce serotonin and dopamine, chemicals which make us feel good.
Ripe bananas may be less aesthetically pleasing, but there’s a strong case for them actually being healthier than their green counterparts. When we consume a ripe banana, our bodies are better able to break down the sugars quickly, turning them into energy we can use to live our daily lives. They are sweeter and pass through our digestive tract quicker. So why have we moved away from eating these gems?
Historically, bananas in the UK have always been popular, but not always in plentiful supply. After the outbreak of the second world war, the government banned the import of bananas, then deemed them a luxury food. On arrival back here in the UK, people queued down the street to be able to get their hands on this exotic favourite. This meant children born during the second world war didn’t see a banana until they were around five to seven years old.
Today things are different. Food globalisation has led to bananas becoming plentiful in supply here in UK, but we’ve also been sold the idea that they need to be eaten unblemished. Bananas are a key item for supermarkets and subject to price wars, which has resulted in them becoming loss leaders for many large supermarkets. With such a competitive market, Tesco and Asda have taken their banana sourcing in-house and now source bananas from companies which don’t comply to the Fairtrade standard that ensures better working conditions for growers. The result is that we pay 40% less for bananas in the UK than in Europe’s second biggest banana market, Germany.
So what can we do to protect the future of this wonder food?
Firstly, as consumers we need to get over our obsession with the perfect-looking banana and recognise that when black spots appear, bananas are even sweeter and easier to digest. Understandably, eating a spotty banana might prove tricky at first. After all we have grown up being conditioned not to eat them this way. But you need to be brave, you could throw them in a blender with dates and water and you have a low fat breakfast full of natural sugars. Or include them in your cake baking in place of eggs, then simply use olive oil instead of butter and your cake will be vegan.
Supermarkets also need to take responsibility for the huge levels of banana waste. They could play an important role in educating people about the benefits of ripe bananas by selling them once spots start to appear. They may well have to sell them at a discount whilst consumer attitudes slowly adjust, but this is better than sending them to landfill and it would mean that producers wouldn’t have to discard so many bananas before they even get to market. Behaviour change is always difficult to achieve and ultimately it would take consumers and retailers pulling in the same direction.
Innovative solutions to dealing with banana waste are also starting to emerge. Rejected bananas and any banana skins, for example, can be used as feedstock in a simple process that then converts the organic matter into methane gas. This could be an important, clean energy source for rural communities where bananas are produced, since waste bananas could be used directly in on-site energy generation. Of course, the hope is that fewer bananas will be rejected in future, and the large volume of bananas needed to generate a significant amount of energy means this remains a niche solution were bananas alone to be used. However, by integrating banana waste with other more commonly used agricultural byproducts used as biogas feedstocks, such as wood chip, we can increasingly turn that waste into something useful.
Creative uses for banana waste aside, it’s time for longer shelf lives for bananas. Domestic and supermarket landfill levels would decrease dramatically, individuals would benefit from a healthy addition to their diet and supermarkets would make savings from cutting waste, which may well lead to them making the right choice in sourcing ethical, Fairtrade bananas. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the era of the spotted banana!
This article first appeared on the Guardian Online on 26.3.14 here.