While dining in the Pymatuning Lab for Ecology’s finest eatery, enjoying a banana-inspired treat, I could not help but interject during a heated discussion of that tacky banana flavoring we all love to hate. Quickly, I blurted out a fun-fact that I had read online some time ago: that banana flavor does not taste like banana because it “tastes like the old banana!” After some laughs at or with me, I went on trying to recall details such as…
Artificial banana flavourings were developed from an old variety of banana called the Gros Michel…[but] a ruthless fungus called Fusarium oxysporum, or “Panama disease”, all but wiped out the Gros Michel during the 20th Century.
Interestingly the BBC article cited above introduces this internet factoid as a myth, but goes back on that thought after a simple quote from a Hawaiian banana farmer who claims, “It’s almost like what a Cavendish (the modern variety) would taste like but sort of amplified, sweeter and, yeah, somehow artificial. Like how grape flavoured bubble-gum differs from an actual grape. When I first tasted it, it made me think of banana flavourings.” Although this ‘expert’ statement supports the supposed myth that I propagated, it was not quite satisfying, but a post on Snopes.com gave a more believable answer. One user pointed out that the main compound of both natural and artificial banana flavoring is just one piece of the puzzle, and that the complete taste is derived from many more compounds which would be more expensive to produce. Therefore, the nuances of natural flavor, unique to any banana cultivar, are absent from the candies, pastries, and PLE desserts that leave us wondering what that fruit actually tastes like.
Despite somewhat settling this debate, I was left anxious about this “Panama Disease” and the threat it poses to America’s favorite fruit (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=30486). According to the Stellenbosch University webpage the disease was first recorded in Australia in 1874, and in 1910 the main agent was identified as a fungus named Fusarium cubense for its discovery in Cuba. During the first half of the 20th Century the disease spread to the Americas, Africa, Indonesia, and parts of India, most likely introduced by infected rhizomes of banana plants. Further investigations led to its recognition as a variant of F. oxysporum, so it was renamed F. oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc). By the 1960’s the Foc epidemic required plantations to phase out the Gros Michel and replace it with a resistant variety, the Cavendish.
Unfortunately, the Cavendish is now being threatened by a new strain of Foc called Tropical Race 4 (TR4) first identified in 1990 in Taiwan. TR4 has since spread to 9 other nations, but has not been reported anywhere in the Americas. Because TR4 is resistant to fungicides and soil fumigants, the principal mitigation strategies have been creating new banana farms in TR4-free areas and switching to entirely different crops. Monoculture, clonal crops like bananas are especially susceptible to these sorts of diseases, and it is likely just a matter of time until a new cultivar of banana is being shipped to American grocery stores, and future generations of consumers are speculating as to what chemists were thinking when they came up with that not-quite-banana flavor.