Banana plants belong to the family with the scientific name Musa. There are many varieties of bananas, all different in flavour and appearance, but there are two main kinds:
Eating bananas are the sweeter varieties. They are eaten raw when ripe.
Cooking bananas (sometimes called plantains) are the starchy varieties. They are cooked before eating, even when they are ripe. These varieties, the first ones in the Pacific, are an important staple food.
The banana plant grows to 3 to 8 metres (10 to 25 feet) from an underground stem called a corm.
The corm sends up a shoot every year, which dies after it flowers and fruits. The 'trunk' of the plant is really rolled leaf bases.
Banana plants grow well throughout the South Pacific, even on most atolls. In order to bear large crops, banana plants must be properly looked after and must not be overcrowded. The illustration on the left shows how they should be thinned. They are grown by planting corms, or suckers, taken from the base of old plants.
About one year after planting, banana plants fruit. They may fruit at any time during the year, but they are more likely to fruit in warm weather. Bananas may be harvested when three-quarters of the fruit on the stem are full size. To ripen the bananas, hang the bunch in an airy place. Sometimes other ripening methods, such as burying or using chemicals, are used.
Percentage of daily needs of an adult woman, filled by two medium bananas1
1. From Food composition trebles for use in the Pacific Islands, South Pacific Commission, 1933.
Percentage of daily needs of an adult woman, filled by one packet of cheese-flavoured snack foods2
2. From Fiji Nutrition Newsletter, National Nutrition Committee; Volume 1, Number 2, p. 3.
Energy in two forms
Bananas contain a lot of energy, which the body needs for warmth, work and play. This energy comes from the sugar and starch in the bananas.
As the starch in green bananas is hard to digest, they must be cooked to be used by the body. As bananas ripen, the starch turns to sugar. Ripe bananas have the same energy value as green ones, but it is in sugar. Energy in ripe bananas is easily used by the body without cooking.
Bananas are a good source of Vitamin C, which keeps body tissues strong, helps the body use iron, and aids chemical actions in the body. They are also a good source of Vitamin A, which is needed for proper growth, healthy eves and protection from disease.
Bananas are an excellent source of minerals that are lost during diarrhoea. By eating bananas the lost nutrients are replaced.
The bar graphs show the food values of two foods that can be bought for the same price. Bananas have other nutrients in addition to energy and protein. Cheese-flavoured snack foods that are sold in brightly coloured packets have none of these important vitamins and minerals. Bananas are the better buy because they have more food value for the money spent.
The banana flower is a good source of Vitamin C and Vitamin A. It is a fair source of calcium and iron, which help make strong bones and teeth (calcium) and help keep the blood healthy (iron).
A weaning food
Ripe eating bananas are an excellent food for babies from 4-6 months on. They are very easy to digest and can supply the extra energy and vitamins that babies need. Making baby food at home with locally grown bananas is easy and saves money.
To prepare this baby food, peel the banana, remove any strings that may stick to it, and mash it well. Remember that a banana is protected from germs when it is in the skin. Using a clean cup and spoon helps to keep it germ free. Bananas prepared in this way can take the place of expensive cereal foods bought from the store.
Green bananas are used as starchy vegetables. They are not as nutritious as some starchy roots such as sweet potatoes or taro and should not take their place completely. They make a good starch for puddings. Green banana flour is used in the food industry.
Ripe bananas may be used in drinks, salads, meat dishes, sandwich fillings, cakes, or other desserts. Ripe eating bananas make a delicious snack. They are a good food for elderly or sick people because they are easily digested. When someone has diarrhoea, bananas should be eaten to replace nutrients that the body has lost.
Banana flowers are picked from the end of a bunch of bananas when the fruits are half grown. Removing the flower at this time will not hurt the fruit. Flowers from eating bananas have a bitter taste and should not be eaten. Only flowers from cooking varieties are eaten. They are used in meat, fish, or shellfish dishes.
Corms from a certain kind of banana that does not flower can be eaten. This kind grows in some places in the Pacific. The corm is eaten as a starchy vegetable.
Banana leaves are not eaten, but are used to wrap food. Use a clean, whole banana leaf and soften it by holding it over a flame. Cut the mid rib off the back so that the leaf lies flat. Cut the leaf to the size needed. After filling it with food, fold and tie with a mid rib from a coconut leaf.
Wrapping foods in banana leaves for school lunches or for selling at the market is cleaner than using newspapers. It is not as expensive as using imported foils or food wraps. A nutritious way to cook foods is to wrap them in banana leaves and steam or bake them in an earth oven.