Tired of Tossing Brown Bananas? Scientists Just Got One Step Closer to Slowing Down Their Ripening Process

According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, farmers cultivated about 117 million tons of bananas in 2019—but about 50 million tons ended up as waste.

ripe bananas on kitchen counter
Photo: eugenekeebler / Getty Images

Sure, you can turn your brown bananas into a delicious quick bread, but when you already have a loaf or two hanging around on your counter (or ready to go in the freezer), the over-ripened fruit typically ends up in the trash. Luckily, a solution may be on the horizon. According to new research from Florida State University published in Physical Biology, scientists might have unlocked a way to slow down bananas' browning process, which could reduce tons of food waste globally.

Bananas develop brown spots because they have been exposed to too much oxygen, which reacts with an enzyme in the fruit peel and causes the production of dark pigments; research states that browned bananas result in 50 million tons of wasted food per year. To stop this cycle, the research team wanted to determine how spots appeared and spread—and started by examining their brown dot patterns. "You can look at some fairly old bananas, and you will see these brown spots, but with dark yellow regions in between," lead study author, Oliver Steinbock, said in a statement. "They never really invaded those regions. They just stopped. That is scientifically interesting, because it might tell you something about the mechanism that causes the browning."

The scientists began their research by measuring how often brown spots formed and how quickly they spread over a week-long period using time-lapse videos. They used this data to create a model describing the speed of the reactions and how oxygen moves in the peel. According to their research, banana peels are covered with tiny pores; the team believes that oxygen enters through defective pores, resulting in brown spots. If you can prevent oxygen from entering the peel, then, browning immediately ceases.

Understanding how these brown spots spread takes researchers one step closer to finding a solution to slowing down the process—but it won't be easy. "It's really a very tricky business because bananas are very complicated systems," Steinbock shared. "If you cool them, you slow down the browning, but you mess with the taste. You can spray something onto the surface to reduce the gas exchange, but that will indirectly change the taste. It's not an easy problem."

Despite challenges, the researchers note how important a solution is, as visually unappealing and spoiled fruits are a large contributor to food waste. "Fruit browning continues to be a major challenge for the food industry," said Steinbock. "Our study offers a model for banana spotting which is capable of capturing their evolution in a physically meaningful context and which can be applied to procedures to mitigate food waste."

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