Featured Image for Techly Explains: Why your banana lollies don’t taste like bananas

Techly Explains: Why your banana lollies don’t taste like bananas

The world can be a disappointing place. You might be one of the many people who secretly think Kings of Leon might still turn it around one day. You could look forward to an interesting, star-studded and irreverent take on the superhero movie phenomenon and then watch Suicide Squad.

You might even have played through all of the Mass Effect games and got that ending for your trouble (yes, it’s been four years, no I’m not over it).

That all fades into the background however, if you stop to wonder what the hell is going on with banana food flavouring!?

Well, Techly has donned its fancy reading glasses to find out.

For a start, let’s take a look at how taste actually works with a line from our pals, The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery

Smell and taste belong to our chemical sensing system (chemosensation).
Gustatory (taste nerve) cells are clustered in the taste buds of the mouth and throat. They react to food or drink mixed with saliva. Many of the small bumps that can be seen on the tongue contain taste buds. These surface cells send taste information to nearby nerve fibers, which send messages to the brain.

So, if we’re agreed that taste is a chemical reaction, and we know that specific chemicals are then translated by the brain and recognised as taste, then surely its just a matter of finding out which is the banana flavour chemical, as it were, and throwing some of that in your sweets?

Well slow yo’ roll. This study went to great lengths to break down the “aromatic profile” of fresh bananas and various derivatives and found that an eye-watering 42 components are involved in that particular cocktail. So, that might be a little beyond your local confectioners – and probably more than a few chemists, to be fair.

They did however discover that the most prominent molecule to make up that compound is known as isoamyl acetate, or to give it its Sunday name, C7H14O2, which is used as the main component in commercial banana essence.

And now it’s time to introduce you to Big Mike, the wonderfully American nickname for the Gros Michel variety of bananas, which is known to have been the, ahem, top banana in America and Europe throughout the 19th and early 20th century, before being messed up by overfarming and a rather nasty fungal infection and nearly rendered extinct.

The rub here is that the banana flavouring taste that we are used to is based upon the Gros Michel, which – as this wonderfully sombre editorial from CNN points out – tasted better than the absolute dross we’re dealing with these days.

So, if the isoamyl acetate flavour we are used to is in fact based on a breed, or cultivar to use the proper lingo, of banana that we no longer eat, then that would explain the mismatch right?

Well according the flamin’ BBC, not quite:

“It sounds very, very unlikely to me,” says synthetic organic chemist Derek Lowe. “The thing is, banana can be mimicked most of the way with a simple compound called isoamyl acetate. Many chemists know it as ‘banana ester’ and anyone who smells it immediately goes, ‘banana!’”

So, the answer is somewhere in between. Rather than using a derivative from a banana that is no longer common, it is more accurate to say that while isoamyl acetate does in fact do a pretty good job, taste-wise it has more in common with a stronger flavoured banana variety.

Fake bananas don’t in fact taste fake, but more real than we’re used to. Deep, man.

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