This section is from the book "Practical Dietetics With Special Reference To Diet In Disease", by William Gilman Thompson. Also available from Amazon: Practical Dietetics with Special Reference to Diet in Disease.
The banana is really a variety of the plantain, or Plan-tago musa, but the fruit is not so large or so hard as that commonly called plantain, and the flavour is far more delicate. The botanical name of the banana, Musa sapientum, was given because it constituted the principal food of the Brahmin caste of India. There are many score of varieties of the banana, ranging from the most delicate examples of the Musa sapientum family to the heaviest of the plantains, and they vary in digestibility as they do in flavour. Casati (Equatorial Province, 1891) names some fourteen varieties, having different characteristics and existing in the Equatorial Province of Africa alone. He noted that, curiously, only the women and children ate the natural fruit, the warriors feeding on the fruits dried and prepared in oil - probably from an intuition that they were more highly nourished by the concentrated food.
In the West Indies, in the islands of the Pacific, along the Congo, and throughout Central Africa many natives eat bananas as their staple article of food, and maintain good physical development. The fact that a diet consisting solely of this fruit will sustain life for long periods is owing to the relatively high percentage of nitrogen which it contains compared with sago, arrowroot, and similar carbohydrates. This percentage amounts to nearly five parts per hundred of the entire fruit, or one fifth of the total solids (Corenwinder).
Grown on a given acreage, bananas will support a larger number of persons than wheat.
The banana has of late years assumed a very important position among fruits sold in this country. Improvements in cultivation and means of transportation, and the length of time through which the fruit will keep without spoiling, are accountable for this, and upwards of one hundred thousand bunches of bananas are sold per month for distribution in New York city and vicinity alone. It ranks equally with the orange in extent of consumption, and during the winter months it is often the only fresh fruit which is universally obtainable in remote country districts, while its cheapness places it within the reach of almost every one.
In British Guiana the banana is employed especially as a nourishing food for young children and invalids.
Many persons find that they cannot easily digest bananas as we obtain them in this country; but this no doubt depends upon the fact that the fruit shipped to the United States is picked very green, and is often quite immature and irregularly ripened when eaten. Imperfectly ripened bananas are composed chiefly of starch, but, as the natural ripening proceeds, the saccharine material is converted into a mucilaginous substance, which in turn forms dextrin and glucose.
The flour, which is made by drying carefully selected and well-ripened bananas, is, however, remarkably easy to digest, and highly nutritious.
Surgeon Parke ("My Personal Experience in Equatorial Africa," (p. 416), in an instructive and interesting account of his experience with the sick of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, refers to Mr. Stanley, who was in the midst of a severe attack of acute gastritis, as follows: " He eats porridge made with banana flour and milk. It is very light and digestible, and has more flavour than arrowroot; it is also very nutritious. We whites have very good reason to know this fact now, as we have mostly lived on banana flour for the past two years".
During most of this period, it should be observed, the members of the expedition were taking very long marches and were suffering from frequent attacks of malarial fever, which were a severe test of the nutritive qualities of any dietary.
Farinaceous food is so prone to undergo malfermentation in the stomach when the normal digestion is disordered that it becomes very important to seek some variety of starchy food which can be easily assimilated without the production of acid eructations, flatulence, or heartburn. The starchy foods which have heretofore been obtainable in this country for this purpose have been all derived from tubers or cereals which have been rendered more assimilable by predigestion or "malting".
It is difficult to make a good fruit flour, for many fruits, when dried, form a mucilaginous mass like the fig, or a sticky material like the raisin, or shrivel to a stringy substance like the apple and the apricot. But the banana, in some varieties and conditions, constitutes an important exception, and when carefully selected and thoroughly dried it can be ground into a meal or even into a flour, making as fine a powder as arrowroot, having a white or pale greyish or yellowish colour, and an agreeable faintly aromatic odour and taste.
This meal possesses decided intrinsic advantages as an invalid food. I have tested these preparations, both experimentally in the laboratory and clinically, and found that an unboiled, saturated aqueous solution of banana flour contains a very large percentage of sugar - from one half to three fourths as much as certain of the best known prepared saccharine foods for infants to which sugar had been artificially added. The finest banana flour, called "bananose," at the end of one and a half hour of pancreatic digestion was capable of developing twice as much sugar as the same quantity of oatmeal or farina, and approximately one and a half time as much sugar as cornstarch. Saliva, when substituted for pancreatic extract, produces a similar effect.
The banana flour, when prepared from the best quality of bananas, is made into a thin gruel or porridge by the addition of either water or milk, and eaten with cream it constitutes a delicious and highly nutritious article of diet suitable in cases of gastric irritability and acute gastritis, etc. It is particularly serviceable for children between five and ten years of age. For those craving an acid flavour, lemon juice with powdered sugar upon the banana porridge is found to be very acceptable. The records of some fifty patients in the New York and Presbyterian Hospitals to whom I gave gruel or porridge made with banana flour show that it was exceptionally well borne by irritable stomachs, almost never vomited, having no tendency to produce acidity from flatulence, nor did it cause diarrhœa or any apparent laxative effect. It proved very useful in several cases of simple gastritis and acute gastritis complicating chronic indigestion and in the early convalescent stage of typhoid fever.
It was used with advantage even during the fever itself whenever a change from an exclusive milk diet seemed indicated either by the patient's dislike for milk or by its causing dyspepsia.
The taste of banana flour is peculiar, and is not always agreeable at first; but it may be so modified by different processes of cooking that the majority of patients find it much more palatable than the conventional arrowroot, cornstarch, or farina. It is a decided gain to be able to enlarge the list of starchy foods adapted to feeble digestions by a fruit flour which presents the following advantages: An agreeable variety of taste; a high percentage of nitrogen, dextrin, and glucose; ready digestibility; high nutritive value; the property of keeping definitely in a concentrated dry state, ready for immediate use.