Hackbusters: Going bananas

This post may leave some people shaking their heads at how strange things can be in our household…

A recent (and not entirely unwelcome) Internet fad is the circulation of “lifehacks”: simple and clever ideas that make life a little easier by solving some everyday practical problem. A subset of these are called “food hacks,” or lifehacks involving cooking and food.  Some are pretty straightforward, as when someone has discovered a better way to cook hot dogs or killer BLTs.

But others immediately put my skeptical side on alert: Nah, that can’t be true. Can it?  One such food hack was the claim that you could keep bananas from ripening too quickly by wrapping the stems in Saran Wrap. Channeling my inner Mythbuster, I decided to do a simple experiment to put this hack to the test (albeit without blowing anything up — sorry, Adam and Jamie).

You can’t just wrap up a bunch of bananas and see whether you think it worked. Memory is a terribly unreliable guide. At the very least, you’d have to start with two bananas, wrap one but not the other, and then watch to see what happens (the unwrapped banana would be known as a “control”).

Moreover, there could be other factors influencing how fast the fruit ripens, and good scientific method requires trying to account for as many of these wayward variables as possible. Not being a trained bananologist (assuming such a thing exists), I had to guess that fruit from the same bunch were more likely to ripen at the same speed than those from different bunches, but that there still might be differences within each bunch — did bananas closer to the middle of the bunch ripen differently than those outside?  And, of course, the environment itself might matter: bananas might ripen differently in the garage, say, than in the kitchen.

Armed with these guesses, I recruited four bananas (though I confess I couldn’t get them to sign a consent form) from the same bunch, and visibly at the same stage of ripeness. I wrapped the stem on one “inside” banana and one “outside” one, then alternated the wrapped and unwrapped bananas on the kitchen counter.

banana experimentThe photo on the right shows how they looked on the seventh day of the experiment. The first and third bananas from the left were the ones that had their stems wrapped. See the difference in ripeness?

Yeah, me neither.

Just to be sure, I ran other experiments. Would single bananas ripen differently than those that stay in a bunch? No. Similarly, would it matter if you wrapped the stems on an entire bunch instead of one at a time? Again, no. Did the weather matter? I tried both cool weather and warm. All of the bananas seemed to ripen faster in warm weather, but wrapping the stems made no visible difference.

Of course, I haven’t proven anything; it’s possible that I could do the experiment again and get a different result. But that would still beg the question of why it didn’t work before. At the very least, it’s clear that it won’t work for everyone, all the time. So I’m confident when I say that this hack is…

Busted.

You might think that I’m a bit bananas — but that’s what you get from someone who’s taught research methods for 30 years. Busting a food hack is a trivial thing. But in a world in which people make all kinds of bold claims, it might be good once in a while to test things out for ourselves.