Peel Medicine & the
Spiel About Bananas
There comes a time for every blog when it’s necessary to adopt a certain gravitas and post a long, well-researched, insightful article about some of the transcendental issues of our age. Where did we come from? What goes through the mind of someone about to take his very last breath? Whatever happened to that pair of striped socks?
In other words, what writer Douglas Adams called, life, the universe and everything. This post won’t be about any of that, though. Instead, let’s talk about bananas. That’s because there’s some breaking news to report: a new asthma medicine made from the its peel, and a genetically altered hybrid, rich in iron.
What? Since when the fruit, any fruit, is less, er, profound than our own, often ill advised food for thought, however ancient wise men may have agonized over it? OK, so maybe. Still, bananas are quickly becoming the world’s most consumed fruit. Or is it a berry? How about that for reach and scope? We bet you thought Socrates didn’t really think much about bananas, didn’t you? Well, you were right about that one.
Still, bananas have long extrapolated their ancient Southeast Asian habitats to enrich the cuisines and imagination of the European navigators of the 16th century, who spread them to the world. The irony is that soon enough bananas came to define the new exotic lands that were so incomprehensible to the colonizers, and later, became a symbol of the pillage of their natural resources.
A BUNCH OF CLONES
We eat the Cavedish. Our grandparents ate Clos Michels. Our children’s children will probably eat something else. What they all have in common is that their are as sterile as fruits are not known to be in nature. Since they’ve began being shipped around the world, some 500 hundred years ago, bananas presented a big obstacle: they quickly decay and die.
A full banana tree produces only one bunch. So, to overcome the problem of transporting them not quite ripe enough but timed to be consumed by the eager markets of the north, bananas began to be cloned. The seeds of each banana of that bunch from that single tree would in turn be harvested to produce a tree of their own, already in the place where the fruit was to be eaten.
With advances in conservation of perishables, the whole bunch could be better transported but the system of cloning them for mass consumption is still in place. The process of ripening bananas has now became highly precise and each shade from green to yellow to orange corresponds to a determined rate of refrigeration.
Bananas are so popular now, that a single medium-sized New York facility, for example, ships millions of 40lb boxes full of bananas every year. As new techniques to ripen them become more cost-efficient, the future may belong to a different way of storing, ripening and shipping bananas. But they will always be clones, mind you.
And clones are vulnerable to diseases for lack of genetic diversity. The Clos Michel was all but wiped out by a fungus in the 1950s. The same could happen any day to the Cavedish. Thus the fact that in a few decades, the world will be eating a different banana. And before we forget, none of modern shipping ways has been able to prevent a hairy by-product of the process: spiders.
They routinely hitch hikes on food containers and some are well acquainted with the fruit itself, as there are a few varieties that make the banana tree their home. The same happens with other species that cross the oceans and learn to adapt to life in another country, just like any immigrant. Although some of those aliens can be disruptive to their new environs, none has a worse reputation than spiders.
MORE IRON FOR INDIA
The Queensland University of Technology scientists had one main thing in mind, when they developed the method to add iron to bananas: to supply the mostly vegetarian Indian population of a valuable nutrient in their diet, and to combat widespread anaemia in the process. Bananas are rich in vitamins but if you want iron, you’ll need to insert it genetically.
That’s when the research becomes a concern for nutritionists and environmental activists, who have been documenting the dire consequences of introducing genetically-modified crops in the agriculture of impoverished nations. But this is a controlled experiment, and unlike gen-alt corn, for example, is not being done to increase profits, as giant corporation Monsanto has been doing.
India is one of the world’s biggest banana producers but it doesn’t export any. The introduction of a super-banana may help prevent high numbers of childbirth deaths, which are credited to an iron-depleted diet. If the plan works, the same research team has already set sights on Uganda. But there the need is for beta carotene, provitamin A, which is converted by the human body into vitamin A or retinol.
THE PEEL’S MEDICAL APPEAL
In Cuba, researchers working at the Pharmaceutical Biological Laboratory have developed a bronchodilator and expectorant from a substance in the banana peel, that’s shown great potential in the treatment of asthma patients. They’ve also synthesized a nutritional, restorative supplement indicated for anaemia, anorexia and convalescence.
The advances in herbal therapy and other unconventional research in Cuba used to be quickly derided by the medical establishment in this country and Europe, for being ‘unproven’ or a mere fruit of government propaganda. Only recently that it’s been acknowledged that the Cuban socialized medicine and health system is one of the most advanced in the world.
Nowadays, serious researchers in the medical and therapeutic fields would be glad to circumvent the archaic political hurdles for a chance to spend time on the Caribbean island, honing their skills. Many in Latin American, Africa and Asia already do just that. Americans have a harder time, but we may be finally turning a corner.
The latest research was introduced at a medical conference held in Hanoi, and according to Cuba’s Prensa Latina, ‘stirred up interest’ among Vietnamese scientists. The same lab has also created a line of nutritional supplements obtained from mango peel, for professionals of high-stress activities such as pilots, elite athletes and divers.
Even a low-stress slacker, though, may be able to see the natural progression of such banana peel research: some pain therapies that would be useful for what could become a hazardous activity, specially for the scientists involved. Just imagine the amount of peels laying around, just waiting to trip our good doctor and carry him or her straight to the orthopedic ward.