When I was competing for my college cross-country and track teams, running sixty-seventy miles per week, I approached my diet with the discipline of an ascetic who believes restraint and devotion will bring her closer to the divine, or at least to that elusive personal record. What to eat, when to eat and how much were questions that structured my day from the moment I woke up until the moment I went so sleep.
At no time were these considerations more acute than on race days, when my nerves made it impossible to digest more than a bagel and a cup of coffee. Races usually occurred in late morning; even if my nerves were in better shape, I wouldn’t have been able to eat much more for fear of expending precious energy on digestion or upsetting my stomach. Heavy eating, such as it is for runners, happens the night before a race, with the traditional carbohydrate-loaded dinner of pasta, salad and bread, and can even start several days prior, when some runners taper their training and increase their caloric intake to build energy for race day.
Long distance runners want to feel well-fueled but also feather-light as they are flying around the track twelve-and-a-half times or running through muddy fields, up heartbreaking hills, or along narrow trails. Few foods help runners achieve this sensation better than bananas, a staple of the running diet for as long as running has been popular in this country. Decades before the American running boom began in the 1970s, however, bananas were America’s preferred fruit. By 1910, only forty years after the banana—which is actually a berry—first appeared in the United States, Americans consumed forty million bunches per year, more than apples and oranges combined. Now we eat 7.6 billion pounds of bananas on an annual basis.
Initially brought to the western world by Alexander the Great, bananas originated in Asia and migrated first to Africa before arriving in Latin America, their trajectory in part determined by the forces of colonialism. Their widespread commercial presence in the United States is attributed almost solely to Lorenzo Baker, a sea captain who, in 1870, brought one hundred and sixty bunches back to Cape Cod with him from Jamaica, the nearest place to the States bananas could be grown. Looking to make a profit to recoup money he’d spent refurbishing his ship, Baker sold the bananas for two dollars a bunch and made the equivalent of more than six thousand dollars. In 1876 the banana was displayed at the Philadelphia World Fair, keeping company with Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. Baker bought land in Jamaica to cultivate his own crop and eventually merged with a New England producer buyer named Andrew Preston to form the United Fruit Company.
From their first appearance in America, in the late 1800s, bananas have been celebrated and promoted for their nutritional value. According Dan Koeppel’s excellent book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, the United Fruit Company was a savvy business organization, adept at shaping consumer desire. Its employees worked hard to present bananas as the “fruit of the people,” emphasizing their comparative cheapness and accessibility. Now known as Chiquita, the United Fruit Company created numerous pamphlets and ads that portrayed the banana less as an exoticism than as a pragmatic health food. They paid doctors to discuss the nutritional benefits of bananas and gave schools free text books in the hopes of making the banana ubiquitous part of school meals and, more importantly, children’s minds. As more and more people migrated from the country to the city, the banana became emblematic of a fast-paced yet wholesome urban life style. The United Fruit Company suggested that for a busy American family on the go, the perfect breakfast—efficient, easy, nutritious—would be cornflakes and bananas. Bananas were one of the original superfoods, predating acai and kale by more than century.
Unlike many contemporary superfoods, however, bananas were and remain relatively inexpensive. In 2017, the average price of bananas was fifty-six cents per pound. (A pound of oranges, by comparison, costs over a dollar.) When I was living in a small mountain in Colorado to train at altitude, I virtually lived on bananas because they fit my running-bum budget.
Of course, everything costs something. Bananas are more affordable than most fruits largely because of the Banana Republics the United Fruit Company helped establish in the twentieth century, reaping enormous profits while paying their employees very little. The United Fruit Company played key roles in developing and damaging several countries in Latin America, setting up critical infrastructure that facilitated the growth and transport of bananas but often violently subduing any kind of worker protest. When banana workers began striking in Columbia, the United Fruit Company encouraged the government to use military force to stymy the revolt, resulting in the “Banana Massacre” that killed as many as two thousand workers. The company aided coupes in Honduras and then in Guatemala, ensuring that the people in power would be friendly to their interests. As recently as 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to paying a paramilitary group twenty-five million dollars to protect a vulnerable banana-growing region in Columbia.
Bananas compelled the public imagination far earlier than running did. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s, when large numbers of people began moving to the suburbs and driving instead of walking, that people began to exercise in larger numbers. In the 1970s, with the rise of talented runners like Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, who helped glamourize the sport, as well as the formation of Nike, which created a fashionable culture around exercise and self-improvement, running became the sport of choice for many.
In spite of its many health benefits, though, running is notoriously hard on the body. Not only does the constant impact strain crucial joints, running can overtax the heart and drain the body of crucial nutrients. Endowed with copious amounts of magnesium, potassium, Vitamin B-6 and carbohydrates, bananas are particularly well suited to replace what running depletes. For runners and especially racers, bananas are also appealing because they are comparatively easy to digest and consequently can be eaten an hour before a race and converted almost immediately into energy. At the end of nearly every road race, whether it be a 5K or an ultramarathon, bananas are available for the competitors. During the Boston Marathon in 2015, runners ate more than twenty-eight thousand bananas.
Although bananas are the fourth largest crop worldwide, preceded only by wheat, rice, and milk, they are on the verge of disappearing, increasingly ravaged by a soil-born fungus called Tropical Race Four. Most people throughout the world eat only one variety of banana, the Cavendish, which possesses no seeds and reproduces clonally. Cultivating only one strain has been financially beneficial, but because it is essentially a monoculture, with no genetic diversity, it is more susceptible to disease.
The endangered status of the banana has far-reaching economic consequences. In America, long distance running tends to be a middle and upper middle class sport. To take an hour, give or take, three-five days a week, sometimes more, and devote it to running is to have enough time, childcare, and energy in the day to do so, not to mention a place where one can run. The most democratic of sports in theory, running still possesses a high barrier to access, to which the modestly price banana—at least for now—is a useful counterpoint.
Words by Ariana Kelly.