For the Taiwanese farmers who grow them, the problem with bananas is that they are not pineapples.
The nation’s banana exports have fallen sharply for decades, as have the prices farmers can get for the fruit they sell.
The solution seems simple: better marketing, as has been done with almonds, raisins and pomegranates in the US.
The Taiwan Banana Research Institute wants to make bananas a luxury product. It hopes that consumers will grow to consider Pei-Chiao bananas — the Giant Cavendish variety most often grown in the country — a delicacy for which they will pay a premium price.
“Our goal is to position Taiwanese bananas as a brand and appeal to consumers who are willing to pay extra for fruit because it tastes better and was grown using safer farming methods,” institute director Chao Chih-ping said.
However, the country’s efforts have so far fallen short.
The banana industry needs to discover a hit product that will increase demand and raise prices. Banana farmers are searching for their equivalent of the pineapple cake, the snack savior of the pineapple industry.
In 2006, the Taipei City Government began promoting the pastry as a Taiwanese souvenir, holding annual baking competitions and marketing it to tourists. That year, the pineapple cake industry raked in NT$2 billion (US$67.6 million) in revenue, according to the Taipei Bakery Association.
By last year, that figure had ballooned to NT$39 billion, driven by bakeries like SunnyHills, which ships the delicacies to buyers in China, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.
“We hoped that banana cakes could become the next pineapple cake, but that hasn’t happened,” said Chuang Lao-da, a director at the Council of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Agency.
The nation’s surplus bananas have also been turned into chips, puddings and a domestically consumed liquor, but no hit product has been discovered yet.
Wu Pao-chun (吳寶春), a baker famous for winning international competitions like France’s Coupe Louis Lesaffre, created his own version of banana bread as a tribute to Taiwan’s farmers.
Unlike the hearty US version, which is made with mashed bananas, Wu’s recipe features slices of the fruit. However, although many of Wu’s baked goods are sold online, his banana bread cannot be shipped because the fruit will lose its texture and flavor. It is available only at his Greater Kaohsiung bakery, where about 30 small loaves are baked each day and sold for NT$80 each.
“People in Asian countries aren’t used to baked goods made with bananas. They have to become accustomed to the flavor, which we hope to do by gradually promoting our banana bread,” he said.
In addition to consumable products, Chao thinks that another way to revive the industry may lie in extracting tryptophan — an amino acid — from surplus bananas to use as an antidepressant. In addition, the peel could be a source of antioxidants, or the fiber from banana stems harvested to be turned into textiles.
Given these possibilities, the US’ corn industry may be a better model for Taiwanese banana farmers than the now iconic pineapple cakes.
Most of the US’ corn is turned into ethanol, animal feed or high-fructose corn syrup, but it can also be used in the manufacturing of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and textiles.
“We’re looking at products like nutritional powder made from processed bananas, which is becoming popular in Japan as a health and weight loss aid,” Chuang said.