Banana Bread Popularity During COVID-19: How (and Why) It Became the Unofficial Baked Good of a Pandemic

Photo: Stocksy/Kelly Knox; Graphic:W+G Creative
Looking back at the past two months, there have been different phases of quarantining. Phase one: Panic shopping for toilet paper, water, and hand sanitizer. Phase two: Overbook yourself for Zoom happy hours and hangouts with your friends, coworkers, and random people from your sorority you haven't seen in 10 years. Phase three: Make banana bread.

Are you even self-isolating if you haven't made banana bread yet? Somehow, it's become the unofficial baked good of COVID-19. Everyone, it seems, it making it. Searches for "banana bread" started to surge on Google the week of March 15—right after the federal government announced a state of emergency due to COVID-19, and the first week many people were staying at home full-time due to widespread adoption of social distancing measures. Trends data on Pinterest shows a similar surge in user interest for banana bread recipes starting on March 24. And food tech company Chicory also reported in a press release that engagement with banana bread content exponentially increased across its recipe network starting in early March, with views of all banana bread recipes surpassing 1 million just in the week of March 29 through April 4.  Translation: People really, really want banana bread.

Now, certainly there's nothing wrong with banana bread; it's about as uncontroversial as baked goods come. (Hey, fruit cake can't say the same.) Unlike other baked goods, the name gives it an air of health superiority. It's bread, not cake. And it's made with bananas. Surely it's the health equivalent of having a salad for breakfast!

But the question remains: Why did banana bread in particular become the baking status symbol du jour? We decided to investigate this extremely delicious trend.

Well+Good's Alt-Baking Bootcamp does have a very delicious banana bread recipe, if you are still looking for one:

Banana bread: Not just a COVID-19 food

As it turns out, COVID-19 is not the first perilous time in history when people turned to banana bread. Food historian Sarah Wassberg Johnson says that the first time anyone made banana bread was likely during the Great Depression—another time of extreme economic and social hardship for most Americans. "Supposedly, a housewife had some bananas that were going bad and decided to try and make bread out of it," Johnson says.

The rest, as they say, is history. The baked good remained popular during the Great Depression, which Johnson credits to a few reasons: the ingredients are cheap, bananas are easy to find regardless of season, and it's easy to make. "We don't think of bananas as a seasonal fruit, the way we do apples, even though apples can be found at the grocery store year-round. So there's a timelessness with it," Johnson says. "Also, unlike apples or some other fruits, the texture of bananas is easy to work them into a mix because they're already soft. It takes less work than some other ingredients."

Fast forward to today, and pandemic aside, there are some pretty clear parallels between the Great Depression and now. Twenty-two million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts that the current global recession will be more severe than both the Global Financial Crisis of 2009 and the Great Depression. Yet to Johnson's point, banana bread ingredients—eggs, flour or alt-flour, eggs, etc.—are still cheap and relatively easy to find, making it friendly to a variety of budgets. (In March 2020, the average price per pound of fresh bananas was $0.58.)

Plus, there's the very real possibility that people...just have a ton of bananas right now that they need to use. "The first reason I thought of as to why so many people were making banana bread is because people reached a point where all the bananas they bought when they stockpiled groceries were starting to go bad and they wanted to find a way to use them instead of throwing them away," Why You Eat What You Eat author Rachel Herz, PhD tells me. And given how many people have been reading articles on W+G in the past few weeks about creative uses for coffee grounds and banana peels, it seems we're all a bit more interested in avoiding food waste—especially when the results are as delicious as banana bread.

The mood-boosting benefits of banana bread

Dr. Herz says there are also specific qualities banana bread has that make it primed to be a food hero right now, especially when it's straight from the oven. Food that's warm, sweet, and carb-loaded is comforting—and who doesn't want a thick slice of comfort when they're in the middle of a pandemic?

"Sweet foods and drinks actually taste sweeter when they are warmed up," Dr. Herz says. "This is true too with tea and coffee drinks, but those drinks have become so common that they don't feel as special as a warm baked good," she says. Eating something warm and sweet activates the pleasure center in the brain, especially when they happen to be carbohydrate-rich. “Foods high in carbs trigger a release of dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, so they’re definitely triggering chemicals in the brain that make us feel good,” Dr. Herz previously told me during an interview about the science behind comfort food cravings.

There's something else about banana bread in particular that Dr. Herz says may be a reason why everyone is making it right now: It reminds them of growing up, and in a time when people can't see their loved ones right now, childhood nostalgia is at a high. "Banana bread is a food that, for many, has a nostalgic, family connection," she says. "That's another reason why people may find it especially comforting right now."

Still, there are other throwback baked goods that people could be making, like chocolate chip cookies, or cinnamon rolls. Why is banana bread so popular right now? Blame your IG feed. According to Dr. Herz, seeing photos of a specific food can make you crave it. That can lead to more people making (and posting) banana bread, and before you know it, you have a full-blown food trend on your hands. (It also doesn't hurt that banana bread is generally a very easy recipe that doesn't require kneading, proofing, rolling, or other finicky things that can be intimidating to novice bakers.)

Whatever the reasons, there are certainly worse things that everyone could be doing right now. (Exhibit A: Three weeks ago when everyone was hoarding toilet paper.) If baking banana bread provides a slice of solace during this scary, anxious time and cuts down on food waste in the process, great. Really the only question that remains is, what will we make when we run out of bananas?

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