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I've heard the claim that artificial banana flavoring doesn't taste like bananas since it was based on a different cultivar than the one we know today. Until the 1950's the main banana cultivar commercially grown and sold was the Gros Michel or Big Mike. This would be the banana most people were familiar with. However, the Gros Michel was nearly wiped out by Panama Disease, so bananas you find in the stores today, are mostly all of the Cavendish variety, which can withstand the disease.

I've read and heard the claim that the artificial banana flavor used in candies and other food, is based on the taste and flavor of Big Mike. That, according to the claim, is the reason that banana flavored food tastes nothing like bananas. See for instance this article in Business Insider: "Strange Facts About Bananas".

In a thread on the Snopes forum someone offers the idea that the difference in taste is more likely due to use of a single flavoring, isoamyl acetate, instead of a richer palette of flavorings. But that doesn't exclude the possibility that the artificial banana flavoring was developed in the time of Gros Michel and based on its taste, and has changed little since, possibly because it became a flavor in its own right.

So, is the taste of artificial banana flavor more like the Gros Michel than the Cavendish?
And if so, is that because artificial banana flavor was developed to taste like the Gros Michel?

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Artificial banana flavor was derived from natural banana flavor; bananas, both Gros Michel and Cavendish, as well as other varieties including "wild" bananas, contain isoamyl acetate, amyl acetate and related compounds which result in their smell and taste.

The synthesis of isoamyl acetate from other sources (namely the reaction of isopentanol aka amyl alcohol with acetic acid as found in vinegar; the acid deprotonates the alcohol to form an ester) allowed for the replication of banana flavoring on a mass-producible scale without the need for natural banana extracts; however, because it's only one such compound in the full palette of "banana oil", it produces a one-note flavor. That flavor is recognizable as banana, by taste and smell, but it was never meant to be an accurate reproduction of any one variety of banana; merely a cheap reproduction of the species in general.

Other similar synthetics that have come to dominate use of the natural flavoring include methyl salicylate (the key ingredient of oil of wintergreen, and so close that hardly anybody bothers with the natural stuff anymore), and hydroxymethoxybenzaldehyde aka vanillin, used in place of natural vanilla extract in most brands of vanilla ice cream (and other flavors; it adds a creamier flavor to chocolate, for instance).

Source: Dr. Derek Lowe, synthetic organic chemist, and FDA documentation on artificial food flavorings.

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    These references are impossible for us to check. One is an appeal to authority, and the other one is far too vague/broad. Could you improve them by being more specific, please? – Oddthinking Mar 31 '14 at 22:46
  • Since the Gros Michel was the prevalent banana at the time of the isolation I would say that it most likely is true that the artificial flavor was based on it. Yes quite likely we would have the exact same artificial flavor if it was based on Cavendish but we wouldn't know for sure. The Gros Michel is known to taste much closer to the artificial extract than the Cavendish. So perhaps if the Cavendish was the most prevalent banana at the time people would not have been satisfied enough with the banana-ness to market it as Banana taste. (Perhaps it would have been blended with other esters.) ... – Kvothe Jun 3 at 13:27
  • While there is no strong evidence to support the myth I would say that in this case the prior that it is true should be quite high because the banana taste being based on the Gros Michel is simply the most likely since it was the most common banana. – Kvothe Jun 3 at 13:28

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