How the humble banana became the latest go-to healthy ingredient


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As the most widely consumed fruit in the US, bananas are about as exotic as a loaf of Wonder bread. Sure, they’re great for a quick post-workout bite, but exciting? Not so much. When it comes to trendy foods, bananas have maintained their basic status while the wellness world waxes about avocado, sweet potato, and chickpeas. (Which, to be fair, are pretty basic themselves.)

But alas, finally, the humble banana is having its time in the sun. Recently, innovative food startups have been turning to bananas to be a healthy base for everything from milk to pasta. Yep, pasta. Other ways ‘nanas are popping up: as healthy “chips”, jerky, dessert bars, and even a cocktail topper.

Here brand founders reveal what makes bananas such an appealing ingredient—I swear, that’s the last banana pun—and a registered dietitian weighs in on if the trend is as healthy as it sounds.

One fruit, tons of uses

The obvious reason why bananas are an easy win for brands is because they’re plant-based—basically a must these days—and super cheap. But Andrew Kinnear, the founder of non-dairy frozen banana dessert company Yellofruit, points to two other reasons why it’s such a valuable ingredient: consistency and taste. “When making good ice cream, solids are needed. Milk has protein, fats, and other components. By using banana purée, we get a naturally occurring solid, with some natural sugars and other components, and a unique and pleasant flavor compared to nut-, oat-, or soy-based [products],” he says. Kinnear adds that using bananas is also more sustainable than using almonds as a base because the nut requires much more water to grow than bananas.

Jeff Richards, the CEO and founder of Mooala, says one reason why their company decided to come out with a banana milk was because of how easy it is to digest. “Bananas are creamy, delicious alternatives to ingredients in other milk substitutes, and are low in acid like a lot of other milk alternatives like almond and oat,” he says. “This means it’s easy on the tummy.” He adds that while nut allergies are common—ruling out almond milk for many—allergies and sensitivities to bananas are more rare.

Accolades aside, both brand founders say it took a long time to get their products just right. “Bananas are a tricky ingredient. It is very hard to pull off a great-tasting banana food or beverage,” Richards says. They ultimately decided to add sunflower seeds to cut the taste a bit, adding a slightly nutty taste without using, well, nuts. Kinnear says it took the Yellofruit team a while to finalize a batch that met the mark for flavor, texture, scoopability (yes, that’s a thing!), mouth-feel, protein, fat, and sugar content. “We had PhDs and world-leading experts in the field working on the product, so our development was methodical. But it always came back to flavor,” Kinnear says.

Outside of the dairy-alternative sector, the Gabanna alt-pasta is perhaps the most innovative way the fruit is being transformed. It should be noted that the brand uses matooke, green bananas—slightly different than yellow bananas. “Matooke from Uganda is a special cooking banana,” their site reads. “Its neutral taste makes it perfect as a diverse ingredient. Green banana flour is the perfect replacement for wheat. It is rich in dietary fibers and resistant starches.”

The health factor of banana foods

When it comes to the banana-based food trend in general, Eliza Savage, RD, is largely into it. “As a dietitian, I’m always promoting the consumption of real, whole foods if possible,” she says. Savage calls out specific reasons why bananas are beneficial: they have potassium (which the body needs for muscle functioning and regulating fluid levels), fiber (a must for good digestion), and carbs (which yes, actually are healthy thank you very much). She adds that even dehydrated bananas—like ones in chip form—have these benefits. However, she still encourages consumers to read the ingredients list of buzzy banana-based products to see what else is in there.

As far as those claims about bananas being easy on the stomach system, Savage says it depends when the bananas were picked. “Unripe bananas can cause constipation because there’s more starch, which is hard for the body to digest, whereas a ripe banana can help relieve constipation because when bananas ripen, the starch is converted into sugar.” It’s why, she says, ripe bananas are part of the BRAT (banana, rice, applesauce, toast) diet, which is recommended for people who have an upset stomach .

The majority of companies use ripe bananas (it’s when they’re tastiest because their at peek sweetness), but Savage notes that the new Gabanna pasta specifically uses green bananas, and the company even calls out that their high in resistant starches, which Savage says the body cannot break down. “For this product, I would suggest someone trying it out start with just a small portion to see how your body responds,” she says. And in fact, she’s not sold that it’s any healthier than whole wheat pasta. “The brand is really playing up the fiber content, but whole grain pasta is high in fiber too,” she says.

Like with any food trend, the inclusion of a healthy food doesn’t guarantee it’s actually good for you. Savage reiterates that the basics of smart food shopping still apply: Do your label reading and steer clear of foods high in sugar or ingredients you don’t recognize. She also encourages people do experiment on their own with bananas, looking up their own banana-based recipes. “That way you can really control exactly what’s in your food,” she says. And hey, sometimes it’s fun to monkey around in the kitchen. (Done, I’m done. Okay?!)

Share your favorite banana-based recipes in Well+Good’s Cook With Us Facebook group. Here are nine to get you started.

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