Why this nutrient-rich fruit makes for more than a tasty base for smoothies
By Julia Calderone
With Althea Chang-Cook
Americans eat more bananas than any other fresh fruit, taking in 13.4 pounds per person annually, according to the Department of Agriculture.
But some carb- and calorie-conscious consumers have relegated bananas to the “do not eat” list because of the fruit’s high sugar and calorie count relative to some other fruits.
That rationale is misguided, says Jessica D. Bihuniak, PhD, RD, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “Nobody gets fat or develops diabetes from eating too many bananas,” Bihuniak says—or from eating too much of any fruit, for that matter. And as with all fruits, bananas are loaded with a bevy of nutrients, some of which promote a healthy heart, gut, and waistline.
The Carbohydrate Concern
Bananas are on the sweeter side compared with other fruit. One large banana has about 120 calories and 16 grams of sugars—that’s more than double what you’d get in 1 cup of strawberry slices, which has 53 calories and about 8 grams of sugars.
But, Bihuniak says, when nutritionists say to limit sugars in your diet, they’re talking about added sugars—the kind that’s in regular soft drinks, mixed into baked goods, and sprinkled into coffee. “If you’re eating just a banana,” Bihuniak says, “there’s no added sugar.”
Plus some of the carbohydrates in bananas come in the form of dietary fiber—3.5 grams per large banana, or about 13 percent of the daily value.
Baby bananas, which grow in parts of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia and are now more readily available in the U.S., have the same nutrients, just in lower amounts because of their smaller size. These fruits are also slightly sweeter than regular bananas. An average-sized baby banana has 53 calories, 7 grams of sugar, and 1.5 grams of fiber.
Green bananas, as well as green plantains, a related fruit, are common in Caribbean and Latin American cooking. Both contain a type of carb called resistant starch. (As bananas ripen, the starch turns into sugars, making the banana sweeter.) Because resistant starch isn’t easily digested, it reduces the amount of sugar released into the bloodstream, helping control blood sugar. Research also suggests that resistant starch helps maintain the balance of healthy gut microbes.
A Note for Parents
Be mindful about your kids eating a banana before bedtime, Bihuniak says, because the fruit is particularly sticky and the sugars can adhere to the teeth, increasing the risk of cavities. As always, make sure young children brush their teeth before bedtime.
Bananas Have a Bunch of Nutrients
Bananas are perhaps best known for their potassium count. Potassium is an electrolyte—a mineral that becomes electrically charged in your bloodstream and governs heart rate and nerve and muscle function. The body carefully maintains levels of potassium and sodium (another electrolyte) to keep fluid levels in balance.
Americans tend to consume too much sodium and not enough potassium, Bihuniak says, and when the two get out of sync, it can increase the risk of high blood pressure, and therefore increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. Research also suggests that keeping those levels harmonized can be beneficial for bone health.
The daily value for potassium is 4,700 mg. A large banana gives you about 10 percent of that (490 mg).
Bananas also supply about a third of your daily recommended vitamin B6 need. Vitamin B6 helps regulate the levels of the amino acid homocysteine in your blood, which when unchecked can harden the arteries and increase the risk for heart attack, stroke, and blood clots, Bihuniak says.
A Versatile Package
Bananas are most easily eaten raw as a snack, but there are a surprising number of other ways you can enjoy them. They can be crushed into a juice, puréed into a smoothie, dehydrated into a chip, and even turned into flour. You can freeze bananas and purée them into an ice-cream-like frozen dessert. “Topping oatmeal, plain yogurt, or peanut butter and toast with banana slices is an excellent way to add nutrition and sweetness without added sugar,” says Consumer Reports nutritionist Amy Keating, RD.
And for an occasional treat, very ripe bananas can be used to make banana bread. “You can easily pump up the nutrition in a banana bread recipe by substituting the regular flour with whole grain flour, replacing some of the oil or butter with Greek yogurt or applesauce, and adding nuts,” Keating says. You can also cut some of the sugar called for in recipes, thanks to fruit’s natural sweetness, she says.
Bananas are also portable. “They come in their own protective cover,” Keating says, “making them an easy, healthy snack on the go.”
And at about 63 cents per pound, they’re hard to beat at the checkout counter.
Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2022, Consumer Reports, Inc.