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August 16th, 2013

Oh you want straight bananas now do you….

Bananas wrapped in protective plastic at a banana plantation in Costa Rica. Credit: Anna Meyer

By Anna Meyer

While studying in Costa Rica for four months this past spring, I had the opportunity to tour a pineapple plantation and a Dole banana plantation. I was surprised and bemused by what I learned about these two tropical fruits that have become commonplace in American homes.

Pineapples and bananas have a long and political history in Costa Rica and most of Latin America. Much of which is a result of the United Fruit Company’s (known now as Chiquita) grab to gain control of land. They’ve even orchestrated government coups in order to be able to export more fruit north. 

Bananas are grown in massive monoculture plantations. A single planting of banana tress consists of hundreds of plants with the exact same genetic makeup; each tree is an identical twin to the one sitting next to it.

The Dole tour guide was a cheerful man who guided us through the plantation and the processing facility. You could tell that informed, environmentally concerned graduate students were not his typical customers; it seemed that middle-aged cruise ship passengers were more his cup of tea. But he still did his best to put on a good show for us with jokes and all. But there were two things that seemed most absurd to me.

 The first was the amount of time and resources they put into make sure that the bananas aren’t damaged from the tree to the processing house. Now that doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? Who would want a broken banana? But this attention to detail isn’t to prevent breakage. Rather it is to make sure that there isn’t a single scratch on the banana because consumers won’t buy bruised bananas. Consumers believe that bruised bananas are bad bananas and they don’t want anything to do with them. The packagers go so far as to put layers of rubber padding and plastic in between each row of the fruit during their short journey from tree to package (see picture).

 The second shocking tidbit relayed to us by our tour guide was that consumers want straight bananas. Yep you heard me right – supposedly a whole generation of people do not appreciate the banana’s wonderful curved shape and usefulness as a fruit telephone.

Our guide explained to us that people stand in the market and try to pick out the straightest bananas, so the industry is trying to find a way to make all conventionally grown bananas as straight as possible. But the thing is, the shape of a banana has everything to do with how nature created the plant to grow. Most people have never seen a banana on a tree or understand the fascinating complexity that nature has created with that curve.

Instead of working to educate consumers about the fascinating natural phenomenon that makes bananas curved, the industry is quite literally trying to bend nature to fit its focus group findings. This is true within the production of pineapples as well.

There is a misconception that the yellower the fruit, the ripper the pineapple. This has led growers to spray an extra round of chemicals on the pineapples to develop a yellower tint to appeal to consumers who would probably opt for less yellow pineapple if they knew about that extra round of chemicals. Consumer preferences also differ slightly between the U.S. and the U.K., with smaller pineapples being shipped to the U.K. and the larger ones being shipped to the U.S. Neither of these physical attributes has anything to do with the ripeness and flavor of the pineapple.

There are many risks associated with imported foods due to lax environmental and health regulations abroad. The Food and Drug Administration reports that half of foodborne illnesses come from imported food, which is why Food & Water Watch has been fighting for years to ensure Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) so that consumers know where their food is from and are making informed decisions in the grocery store.  

So, the next time you’re looking for a fruit snack, do yourself a favor and buy a nice green juicy organic pineapple…Or better yet stop by your local farmers market and buy some wonderful local fruit that is actually in season and hasn’t been shipped thousands of miles to reach your grocery store. Then take that piece of fruit to the library (or the Google) and do some old fashioned research to learn about its attributes, what it needs to grow, the seasons and geography the best support it and then sit a while and appreciate how truly amazing our environment is and why it is so important that we stop trying to “improve” it.  

To find out more about where your fruits and vegetables come from, visit The Global Grocer.  And take action to tell Congress to stop secret trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which could allow for weaker regulations on imported foods putting our health and food safety at risk.

Anna Meyer is a communications intern in the Oakland office.

8 Comments on Oh you want straight bananas now do you….

  1. Lucy Strausbaugh says:

    Hi- Horrifying article- straight bananas!!! Were you in Limon near Cahuita or farther north? I bring students to volunteer at the Sloth Sanctuary in Limon, and the aerial sprayers go right over the sanctuary with their poison. They’re killing the Estrella River there, and more sloths are being born deformed in the wild. It’s Dole. Do you know who I could link up with in Costa Rica to stop this- plus poisoning the locals….etc? I know it’s big money for CR but this is heinous behavior. Please reply to: [email protected]


  2. Debra Tate says:

    What is wrong with people now a days? Straight bananas? Give me a break! If they were supposed to be straight, they would grow that way! Take nature as it is. Quite being stuck on stupid and wanting designer bananas! Next they will want flavored water our of natural springs! Stuck on Stupid!

  3. Sabina Duke says:

    There goes Dole off my list. Now are organic pineapples and bananas safe?

  4. Effie says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience visiting the plantations. I agree that people need to be educated about where there food comes from and how it’s processed. People need to be informed. Once I understood why organic food was not as pretty, I don’t care about pretty – I care about quality organic foods free from chemicals including peticides.

    Thanks again.

  5. Michele Siegel says:

    Stop secret trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which could allow for weaker regulations on imported foods putting our health and food safety at risk.

  6. Kristina says:

    Excellent post! Thank you so much for proving this information and sharing your experience! This topic is definitely something more people need to be educated on.

  7. Great info on the Bananas and one of my favorite topics United Fruit. I am old enough to remember when United Fruit was a very hot topic right after WWII. My parents were organizers and Communists in the 30’s and 40’s so I was raised to look for the hidden story behind the headlines. United Fruit was a really convenient smoke screen for the young CIA to use because of all the political ties the company had all over Latin America and the Caribbean. In my household hold Bananas became synonymous with slave labor and exploitation so in the 50’s I was one of the few kids not allowed to buy or eat them. Soon coups were cropping up all over the islands and Latin American, money was soon being funneled both directions through United Fruit. Sadly the Bananas crops suffered as the goal was to make money not produce good bananas so fungus started killing off the Bananas because instead of strengthening the plants they were depleting the soil so they could grow as many crops as possible. Then going for mono crops so they would all look alike seemed like a great idea to boost profits. When United Fruit was discovered to be behind a lot of political unrest and turmoil Chiquita suddenly burst upon our TV screens and United Fruit was off the headlines and out of the minds of the American people. This was all many years ago however ask anyone who lives anywhere around the old Banana Plantations and the name United Fruit still brings back many very bad memories as most families lost family members to the uprisings and also to the work practices of the plantations. I hope you don’t mind my comments however at my age it’s been a long time since I have even seen the words United Fruit much less a discussion on the story of the Banana Plantations.

  8. Sherry says:

    I grew my own pineapple from a pineapple top. I allowed it to ripen on the plant. It turned a beautiful gold color and was very sweet. I am going to plant the top from that one and try again.

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