Why Doesn't Artificial Banana Flavor Taste Like Bananas?

Photo: © Ruslan Dashinsky / Getty Images

Banana Runts are the best Runts. Don't deny it. There's a reason they sell them on their own in five pound bags, and why any bowl of Runts will quickly be devoid of yellow within minutes of its presentation. Okay, maybe we don't offer up a lot of bowls of Runts to houseguests, but the point is that whether it's fruit-shaped hard candy, Laffy Taffy or Jell-O Pudding, banana flavor is distinctly identifiable and enjoyable and…well, it tastes nothing like bananas.

That may be because the bananas you eat today are not your great-granny's bananas. (Say that six times fast.) If you bought bananas in the first half of the 20th Century, it's highly likely you were buying the fatter, more flavorful cousin of our modern banana, the Gros Michel—a cultivar that was top banana in its day and comprised the vast majority of banana exports.

Then along came Panama disease, a fungus that has been the bane of banana growers since the 1800s. It all but wiped the Gros Michel off the planet by the 1960s. As the fungus decimated crops, a less-popular, less-flavorful variety—the Cavendish—was discovered to be resistant to the pathogen. Crops were quickly replaced with this new fruit and we're still eating it today. Whew. Problem solved, right? Well, not so fast. But first, back to the candy.


When you break down the artificial banana flavor, it comes down to one compound: isoamyl acetate. According to a BBC story on this topic, if you were to sniff isoamyl acetate (like the cool kids did behind the bleachers) you would say "that's bananas!" But, you know, in the literal sense. Cavendish bananas have a more subtle and complex flavor than Gros Michels, so this one-shot flavoring can't really cover the nuances of the banana we all know. However, studies of the flavor compounds in Gros Michel bananas (which are still grown by banana-philes) show that the old-school bananas packed in much more of that isoamyl acetate flavor than their present-day counterparts. So it's not that the fake banana flavor doesn't taste like bananas, it's that bananas don't taste as flavorful as they used to.


If you're lamenting the loss of robust banana flavors in our fruit salads, you may have a more pressing issue on your hands. Cavendishes could soon be on their way out as well. In replacing the Gros Michel with the Cavendish those (perhaps a bit overzealous) agricultural wizards ended up cultivating a sterile crop that reproduces through transplants, not seeds. Hence bananas, a fruit, don't have any seeds like a good fruit should. It's okay, they're still yummy.


A new strain of Panama disease has sprung up in the past decade or so and is already affecting Cavendish crops in Asia, Africa and Australia. Because they don't grow from seeds, all bananas are essentially clones. That means there isn't any genetic diversity that could produce resistant crops. So if the fungus can kill off one Cavendish plant, it can kill all of them. Hopefully through engineering, cultivation and research Cavendish bananas can be saved, because they're not only an $11 billion global industry, they're also our planet's favorite fruit.


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