From underripe to overripe and everywhere in-between, bananas offer some health perks to consider. Choosing your preferred eating stage will likely come down to taste and texture.
As fruits go, bananas are some of the most versatile. Not only can you pop them in a fruit salad, use them to bulk up a smoothie, or mash them into baked goods, but they also come with an exterior perfect for writing goofy messages on. (Don’t tell us you’ve never experienced the joy of penning a joke or silly doodle on a banana peel.)
But get this: bananas aren’t just a chameleon in the culinary sense. Each of their stages of ripeness also offers unique benefits for health. As your ’nanners pass through their brief time on Earth, they’ll affect your body differently, depending on exactly when you picked them from the bunch.
Want to learn more? Let’s peel apart the health effects of eating bananas at every point of ripeness.
If you could see your starchy fruits on a molecular level, you could probably tease their ripeness apart into dozens of itty-bitty gradients. But for the purposes of visually assessing bananas (which is how most of us check them out), we’re going with five primary stages:
- barely ripe
- very ripe
Oh, and just in case you’re a banana connoisseur who fills your fruit basket with umpteen varieties of the tropical guys, we’re referring here to the Cavendish cultivar — the basic yellow banana you’ll find at most U.S. grocery stores.
|very firm; dark green to medium-green
|improves blood sugar control, promotes gut health, helps with weight loss
|firm; pale yellow with light green at the top
|high in fiber, low in carbs, promotes blood sugar control
|easily peel-able; medium-yellow, no (or few) brown spots
|maximum micronutrients like potassium and vitamin B6
|soft but not mushy; a mix of yellow with brown spots
|easier to digest; good for solo eating or inclusion in healthy foods
|soft, mushy interior; highly spotted with brown or entirely brown
|natural sweetness, can replace fats in baking
If you ask us, you can’t go wrong eating bananas any time. The yellow crescents are packed with nutrients like fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C, to name a few. For specific health benefits, though, you may prefer to time your snacking based on the following ripeness levels.
Surprisingly, underripe bananas foster (*wink*) a host of positive effects in the body. These banana babies happen to be extremely high in fiber — even higher than ripe bananas. This is because they contain an abundance of a substance called resistant starch.
A 2018 study found that when men who were overweight or had obesity ate more resistant starch at breakfast or lunch, they ate fewer calories at dinner.
Beyond these pluses, unripe bananas’ resistant starch could also be a boon for folks with blood sugar issues.
“Resistant starch is known for blood sugar control since it is not digested in the small intestine, but rather fermented in the large intestine,” says Amanda Lane, MS, RD, CDCES.
After a few days on your countertop, green bananas move into the next phase of their life cycle. In this barely ripe category, bananas continue to offer some of the same advantages as their greener selves.
“Underripe and barely ripe bananas are rich in prebiotic fiber, which promotes an increase in good bacteria growth that is essential for gut health, and also aids in digestive issues,” says Carrie Gabriel, MS, RD. “This fiber also slows down our body’s ability to absorb sugar, therefore helping blood sugar spikes after meals.”
Another advantage: The lower a banana’s ripeness, the less sugar it contains. If you’re counting carbs a barely ripe banana might make a smart choice. Plus, unlike fully green bananas, barely ripe ones have begun to soften, making them tastier to eat.
In most contexts, being called “ripe” isn’t exactly a compliment. But when it comes to bananas, peak ripeness is an indicator of palatability and nutrients. “Consuming bananas at the ideal ripeness provides the best balance of starch and sweetness, as well as maximum micronutrients such as potassium, vitamin B6, and antioxidants,” says Lane.
Potassium is a key nutrient for regulating blood pressure, which helps reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. It’s got some other tricks up its sleeve, too — like boosting bone health, keeping muscles contracting, and maintaining your body’s fluid balance.
This is where ‘nanas enter their sweetened-up stage.
Though they lose some of the resistant starch that gave them so many advantages earlier on, they continue to provide good nutrition (and even some health benefits).
“Very ripe and overripe bananas are rich in flavor and antioxidants, which can help benefit our immune systems,” says Gabriel. “They also take less time to digest, which can be beneficial, depending on the person.”
This phase is also where bananas become just right for adding sweetness and heft to smoothies and shakes. This might nudge you toward pairing them with other nutrient-rich ingredients like greens, yogurt, and other fruits — rounding out your diet with nutrients galore.
With a dark brown exterior and a withered-on-the-outside, mushy-on-the-inside texture, overripe bananas won’t win any beauty contests. Still, they’re not without their benefits.
Though they’re higher in sugar than younger bananas, this natural sweetness can make them appealing to kids (or, let’s be honest, adults) who typically turn up their noses at fresh produce. “Children that prefer sweeter foods will be more likely to grab a ripe or overripe banana,” Lane points out.
All that sweetness and mush also make overripe bananas a heart-healthy, vegan, fat-free alternative to butter and oils in baking. If you’d like to cut back on saturated fat, try replacing half the butter in a baking recipe with mashed banana. (This might just require a little trial and error, as banana could cause some slight differences in your finished product.)
The *best* banana stage when it comes to eating depends on several factors.
For starters, taste and texture matter for a pleasant eating experience for most folks. For a convenient gym bag snack (pre-packed by nature) or a single snack anytime, many tend to prefer medium-ripe bananas.
But unripe bananas can lend their firmness to frying or sautéing, while very ripe and overripe ones blend beautifully into oatmeal, muffins, and energy balls.
Then, of course, the health concerns discussed above might determine your personal best banana-eating stage. People with blood sugar issues or weight loss goals can benefit from opting for less ripe bananas. But those who’d like to sweeten and moisten foods in an all-natural way might wanna ‘nanna on the riper side.
Among bananas’ five stages, there’s a clear winner for weight loss. “Green bananas (underripe or barely ripe) have the most weight loss benefits,” says Gabriel.
“They are still young and full of resistant starch. Resistant starch makes your digestive system work harder because it resists digestion in the small intestine and ferments in the large intestine, acting as a prebiotic and feeding the good bacteria in the gut.”
Unripe bananas’ blood sugar benefits also have a role to play in weight loss. “Because resistant starch isn’t digested in the small intestine, it doesn’t raise blood sugar quickly, so you stay fuller longer,” Gabriel says. And as we all know, if you’re feeling full, you’re a heckuva lot less likely to overeat.
Still, you might find it tough to choke down hard, starchy green bananas, even in the name of weight loss goals. “The sacrifice is the taste,” adds Gabriel. “Green bananas aren’t as sweet as ripe or very ripe bananas. In fact, they are usually quite bitter!”
Our recommendation: Ease into eating unripe ‘nanners by substituting them for plantains in Caribbean cuisine or trying them in a curry.
Is it wrong to admit bananas aren’t 100 percent perfect? (Sorry, sweet yellow friends!) Despite each ripeness stage’s advantages, they’ve also got their darker sides — and we don’t just mean brown spots.
Firm, green, unripe bananas (again) aren’t the most appealing, especially for palates used to sweeter fruits. Because of their hardness and starchy taste, they’re not ideal in some types of preparation, like smoothies, banana bread, or pancakes.
Similarly, bananas that are just barely ripe don’t mash down nearly as nicely as their softer, riper counterparts, so you may be hard-pressed — literally — to find enticing ways to eat them.
On the other side of the spectrum, very ripe and overripe bananas, though excellent additions in cooking and baking, don’t offer quite the impressive health profile of less mature versions. Sure, they’ve still got important nutrients, but their high sugar content detracts from their overall health rating.
“Those with diabetes may want to take ripeness into consideration, as the riper a banana is, the more the starches have broken down into sugars,” says Lane. “This could have a larger impact on blood sugars than a less ripe banana.”
No matter when you buy bananas (or actually use them… ), they’ve got some health perks to offer. In fact, all bananas fall under the good-for-you umbrella of fruits and vegetables that we benefit from.
That said, if you’ve got specific health goals in mind, it helps to target the ripeness stage that’s just right for your needs.