I’ve always thought banana popsicles were…strange. Don’t get me wrong, banana is the best popsicle flavor, hands down. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either delusional or has an ulterior motive. Either way, they can’t be trusted, and you should turn and run from anyone who won’t immediately admit that banana is #1.
But rankings notwithstanding, banana popsicles are very weird. Their intense, neon yellow color isn’t exactly reminiscent of the fruit they’re named after, and let’s be real, that sweet, delicious, Banana Popsicle™ flavor is not what you taste when you bite into a banana. So why do they taste that way? My journey to answer that question started a long time ago.
It’s a hot summer evening. My soccer team just finished a game. I don’t know if it was to congratulate us for a win or to console us after a loss, but whichever parent was supposed to bring snacks decided that tonight they’d throw caution to the wind and risk the inevitable sugar high/crash for the brief moment of adulation that follows the announcement of their chosen snack: Popsicles.
The team rejoiced. What better way to ride the high of a hard-fought win—or to stave off the disappointment of a crushing loss? Which was it again? It doesn’t matter. Only one thing matters now. We’re getting popsicles. They’d better have banana.
I sprint to my teammate’s mom and/or dad to get there first. We’ve all heard the popsicles are coming, and I’m not going to settle for orange or, even worse, the dreaded grape. Banana popsicles are rare, but if there’s even an outside chance I can get one, I’m going to make it happen. They open their red Coleman Ark of the Covenant and reveal its contents. Popsicles in all the colors of the rainbow. I see yellow, and for an instant I’m worried it’ll be some weird lemon flavor. Maybe the evening sun is playing tricks, and I’m going to end up with orange—the most boring of all popsicle flavors.
It’s banana. I swear I could hear an angelic choir.
I rip open the plastic wrapping and bite straight down into the frozen treat, throwing caution to the wind. I’m rewarded with brain-freeze’s familiar agony, maybe the worst pain a bright-eyed, innocent kid like me has ever experienced. But the pain doesn’t last forever, and soon that sweet, sweet, banana flavor is all I notice. I’m immersed in it. I love it like only a kid can love anything. Then one of my teammates who’s also gotten a banana popsicle speaks: “Have you ever noticed that banana popsicles don’t taste anything like banana?”
We all mutter some form of “yeah,” or “huh,” and move on with our feast. But as we finished up and got into our parents’ cars with sticky fingers and lips, that kid’s question stuck with me. Why don’t banana popsicles taste like bananas? I liked bananas fine, but I loved the popsicles. Why were they even called banana popsicles? I had to know!
Of course, I didn’t have to know. I was a kid with the attention span of…a kid. I got over it. I grew up. I stopped playing soccer. I remember being curious about banana popsicles, then I moved on with my life. I probably haven’t had one in years. But then one day, when I was a less-than-bright-eyed 20-something, a know-it-all co-worker told me something crazy. He said: “You know how banana flavored popsicles don’t taste like bananas?”
I had flashbacks to soccer and Coleman coolers and brain-freeze, and I said: “Yes. I have noticed that.”
He then says, “Well, did you know it’s because back when banana flavoring was invented, bananas were a completely different species than they are today. The kind of banana the flavoring was made from eventually went extinct, so none of us have ever tried it. So now, when you eat something banana-flavored, you’re really tasting an extinct species of banana.”
This was exactly the kind of bizarre factoid that a trivia nerd like me loved. It also happened to be exactly the kind of bizarre factoid that is usually completely untrue.
And sadly, after a little research, it turns out that no, banana flavor is not derived from an extinct type of banana. That’s not how artificial flavors work. But like so many stories, this one has many aspects of truth. As it turns out, the story of bananas and banana flavoring is still bizarre and fascinating, if not quite as neat as that coworker would have you and I believe.
For starters, the idea that bananas used to be different than they are today? That’s completely true. If you go way back, you’ll actually end up with a plant called Musa balbisiana. It only barely looks like a banana, but it, along with a couple related species, is actually what the fruit we know today as a banana is derived from. It’s shorter and much fatter, and it’s filled with huge seeds that make it all but inedible, but over generations of selective breeding, humans morphed it into the fruit we all know and love.
But it wasn’t a short process to get from Musa balbisiana to modern bananas. There have been, and there continue to be, many different varietals of banana. What we usually picture when we think of a banana today is called a Cavendish banana, but it wasn’t always the most popular kind of the fruit. In fact, the yellow Cavendish only became popular when disease almost wiped out one of the most common kinds of banana, the Gros Michel.
When my coworker was telling me about this extinct, popsicle-flavored banana, he was talking about the Gros Michel, but he had the details wrong—the Gros Michel is not extinct. It still exists today, but it’s far less common than it once was. Up until the 1950s, it was the most widely grown banana on Earth, until an epidemic of Panama disease devastated Gros Michel Harvests and the Cavendish rose up to fill the void. The Cavendish was resistant to the disease, so it took over the banana crown, but Gros Michels weren’t totally wiped out. If you really want to try one, they’re not that hard to get a hold of. And, as if to lend credence to my coworker’s story, people say they do taste sort of… artificial.
That’s probably where the myth came from. Gros Michels have a more aggressively sweet taste than Cavendishes—indeed, more similar to the artificial banana flavoring that makes me love Banana popsicles so much. But that doesn’t mean that the flavoring is derived from Gros Michels. That’s not how artificial flavors work—it’s way, way more complicated than that.
While specific combinations of molecules that make a thing taste a certain way are very complex, some flavors, especially fruit flavors, have a few simple chemicals doing the vast majority of the work. These chemicals can be created artificially, with no input at all from the thing they’re meant to taste like, and still come out creating a very similar flavor. So while octyl acetate isn’t just made from oranges, it still tastes a lot like them. These chemicals can be made extremely inexpensively, and they do a pretty darn passable job of mimicking the chemical makeup of whatever fruit they’re imitating. It’s a popsicle maker’s dream!
So, why would a company take a Gros Michel and do some weird science magic to create banana flavoring, when one sniff of the cheap chemical isoamyl acetate will have almost anyone instantly think of bananas?
Yes, it’s true that the aggressively sweet Gros Michel does taste more like a banana popsicle than the complex flavor of a Cavendish, but that doesn’t mean that biting into a banana popsicle is some gateway to a time when the Gros Michel was king. Artificial flavors are, by their nature, less complex than natural ones, so the similarity between the Gros Michel and isoamyl acetate is mostly a coincidence. But it’s still cool to think about.
So what have I learned in my journey from soccer practice to here? Mostly just that banana popsicles are weird. It’s a frozen, sugary treat flavored with a chemical ester that happens to taste like the ancestors of a stubby, inedible fruit that has been selectively bred for size and flavor over centuries. It also likely tasted more like a banana to people in the 1920s than it does to someone today thanks to an epidemic that targeted a sweet banana over one that tastes more complex.
Apparently, it takes a whole lot of history and science knowledge to really understand the banana popsicle. If I could go back to my childhood self that day after soccer practice and he asked me, “Have you ever noticed that banana popsicles don’t taste anything like banana?” I’d probably just say “Yeah, weird huh? They sure taste good though,” and leave it at that.