Midway through her first-round match at the Australian Open this year, world No. 10 CoCo Vandeweghe refused to return to the court until someone brought her a banana.
“I’m waiting for the banana. How are they not on court? I mean, c’mon, that’s not my fault,” Vandeweghe told chair umpire Fergus Murphy.
“Let’s play!” an annoyed Murphy said into his microphone, clearly fed up with Vandeweghe.
“Well now they’re here,” said Vandeweghe, noticing that a fresh batch of fruit had finally appeared courtside. “Mind if I take a bite?”
“No, you don’t have time now,” Murphy warned, but a defiant Vandeweghe had already started eating one of the bananas.
“Code violation: delay of game. Warning, Miss Vandeweghe.”
Vandeweghe was roundly mocked in the press for holding up the match this way. “CoCo goes bananas,” read one ESPN headline. People couldn’t understand how a professional tennis player could become so invested in a single banana. But this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
After a second-round match at the 1998 Rome Masters, Félix Mantilla was so pissed off at Thomas Muster that he refused to shake his hand. The reason? Earlier during a changeover, Muster had run up to Mantilla, snatched the banana from his hands, and eaten it.
At the 2006 U.S. Open, Maria Sharapova was accused of receiving illegal coaching after her father started waving a banana at her from the stands, apparently trying remind her to eat banana.
“I believe, at the end of the day, personally, my life is not about a banana,” Sharapova told reporters after she won the final.
If only this were true. The lives of professional tennis players are very much about bananas. They’re the most popular snack on tour, and tennis players consume more of them than maybe any other pro athlete.
“All tennis players eat like five bananas a day,” Eugenie Bouchard told the Sunday Express last year at Wimbledon, where tens of thousands of the fruit are consumed every tournament.
“It’s almost like a ritual,” the ATP’s head nutritionist Page Love told me.
If you want proof of the enduring popularity of the banana in tennis, talk to Love about her attempts to convince tour pros to try any other kind of snack other than bananas.
“Suzie [Simmons] and I tend to be the ones that review the tournament supply [of on-court snacks] and there is plenty of stuff in there. We like tournaments to have numerous types of energy bars, crackers, all kinds of fruits, granola bars. Tons of stuff.”
Love doesn’t think bananas are the best on-court snack, and often recommends that players try some of the carb-heavier, saltier foods in the basket, like pretzels and energy bars. But most players stubbornly refuse to let go of their bananas.
“For some reason, and I don’t know where this has come from, some tennis players think they need high-potassium foods on court. I think [that’s] a misunderstanding of the science. The primary electrolyte we lose in sweat is salt, not potassium.”
Love isn’t the first person to question the suitability of the banana as an on-court snack.
In fact, up until recently, the banana wasn’t a popular tennis snack at all. Just a few decades ago, the idea of eating a banana on court during a professional tennis match wasn’t just unpopular: It was laughable.
“I think the embryonic stages of the ‘banana resurgence’ did occur because of my initial work. Because of the amount of press I got, it was able to kind of get out in the public conscious.”
These are the words of Robert Haas, a sports nutritionist who gained attention in the early ‘80s after world No. 1 Martina Navratilova hired him to overhaul her diet. (He also worked for Cher, with whom he wrote a book.) Navratilova won 102 of her next 104 matches on this new diet, which included lots of on-court bananas, which Haas liked to say were “better than Gatorade.”
Haas told me he started telling players to carry bananas around in their bags in the ‘70s, when he realized that they were the perfect on-court snack.
“I would tell the players, ‘Look, here’s a banana, carry it with you in your bag. If it’s a five-set Grand Slam event, carry two bananas with you. You’re going to want these at critical periods, because it’ll restore electrolytes, and it’ll give you a shot of carbohydrate.’”
“I was kind of like the Johnny Appleseed of bananas.”
Why the banana, of all the foods?
“I had been working with a computer programmer, back when computers were the size of houses. I said, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea: Why don’t we get a [food nutrition] database from the government, and you write a routine that will allow me to do all kinds of searches and organize foods based on a nutritional breakdown?’”
Haas ran the program on a computer at Florida State University, feeding it nutritional data in the hopes that it would yield the perfect on-court snack.
“I started looking for ideal combinations of nutrients for athletes, like magnesium, potassium and choline,” he said. “Only one food out of all the things that I searched came up with a pretty good ratio of nutrients, and that was the banana.
“As far as I know, I was the very first one to ever use a massive computer to actually analyze these kinds of things and find out the ideal food for a particular application. That was 1976.”
Haas said that many people laughed at him when he pitched his nutritional advice to pros in the ‘70s.
“When I first started trying to tell people about [bananas] and sports nutrition in general, none of them would listen. Everything I was doing was being mocked at the time. The banana began kind of like that. As like, an outcast.
“So to me, the banana has been been vindicated.”
If at this point you’re confused about which parts of banana nutrition are backed by actual science and which parts aren’t, you’re not alone.
One reason why some coaches and nutritionists today try to steer tennis players away from bananas is because they believe the sugars in bananas aren’t taken up by the body quickly enough during exercise to result in any kind of energy boost. Love herself told me something to this effect.
“I think it’s a mistake for players to rely on bananas because it doesn’t provide as quick of energy—fructose doesn’t break down as quickly as something like the maltodextrins that are in the sport foods. I think it’s honestly just a common misunderstanding of the science.”
The problem with this is that a lot of the science around the uptake of sugars during exercise is sponsored by Gatorade, which wants to convince us that drinking “quick carbs” like maltodextrin or dextrose (of which you can buy a 50-pound bag for 60 bucks here) is good. In the resulting thicket of sugar drink-sponsored and -influenced research, it’s hard to determine which sugar sources are actually good or bad.
Sure, fructose breaks down slower than other sugars. But according to the USDA’s National Nutrient Database, of the 14.43 g of total sugars found in a medium-sized banana, only 5.72 grams are fructose. (5.88 g are glucose and 2.82 g are sucrose.)
And in 2012, Appalachian State University professor David Nieman published a study claiming that the sugars in bananas are, in fact, just as fast-acting and energy-providing during athletic activity as the sugars found in Gatorade. The study found that cyclists fueled by banana and sports drink were “able to complete 75-km cycling trials with no differences in performance measures.”
Here, finally, was definitive proof of the banana’s efficacy as an on-court snack. The missing piece in the banana nutrition puzzle.
“Yes, hi. I have you on speaker,” Nieman told me when I called him to talk about his banana study.
“I’m here with [study co-author] Dr. Nick Gillit, he’s the Vice President of the Dole Nutrition Research Institute. We’ve done a lot of research together on bananas, and he can answer questions that I can’t.”
Admittedly, finding out that this study was sponsored by the Dole Food Company initially felt like a bit of a setback.
“I think the future of sports nutrition is figuring out what these fruit molecules do for the athletes,” Nieman said at one point in the conversation.
How reliable could research about fruit backed by the world’s largest fruit company really be?
But the more I thought about it, the more all of this began to feel like a huge opportunity. Who better to take on Gatorade than Big Banana?
So I asked Gillit whether he though Dole bananas could ever unseat Gatorade as the fuel source of choice for pro athletes, and he immediately started to think out loud about the possibilities:
“[Gatorade] does have a ginormous marketing machine. Sponsorships of athletes, sponsorships of teams. So—not that banana companies like Dole and Chiquita and Del Monte are ever gonna start endorsing athletes and things, you know. They could, but I don’t think the companies that sell bananas are really into athletic sponsorship.”
“But I think you might need that if you want to turn the tide a little bit, a sponsorship of a sports team or sponsorship of a particular athlete. I think the science is there for somebody to make that decision wholeheartedly and truthfully, and I think the marketing is going to determine all of it. But I don’t know whether that is there with the banana.”
“I wish it was! But I don’t think banana companies are ready to go down that road.”
He paused again.
“If they did, they would have absolute scientific fact to stand on. That’s for sure.”
Absolute scientific fact. This was huge news.
I immediately got in touch with Xavier Roussel, VP of Marketing at Dole, to discuss potential ways Dole could move forward with me and Gillit’s proposal.
Roussel was a bit less enthusiastic about the idea of getting into sports endorsements than Gillit. He explained that because retailers mainly compete on price when it comes to fruits and vegetables, produce companies generally have much thinner margins than consumer packaged goods (CPGs) like Gatorade, which means less money for big splashy marketing expenses like athlete endorsements.
“Having said that, you know, there are a bunch of athletes out there that would probably align on health and nutrition and natural foods, we would have no issues aligning with them,” Roussel told me.
What kinds of athletes are we talking here?
“To get high visibility, you need really high-profile. So there are not that many people who can do it. In marketing, you know, it’s all about how famous you are. Those highly visible athletes, they of course are courted by all of the brands, with high budgets and therefore, let’s say it is not something that produce does traditionally.”
So if we’re going to compete against Gatorade, we’re going to need to endorse someone big? Someone with high visibility?
“We see that as a category overall, we see consumers very receptive to the health and nutrition message. That’s a big mega-trend that goes through our product category. The way we market, we have a very high level of penetration, I mean a product like bananas is bought once a year by over 90 percent of the population. It’s a product for each and every one, right? Bananas is a product that everybody enjoys.”
Roussel was right—bananas are a product that everyone enjoys. But it felt like we were beating around the bush a little bit here. So I asked him point-blank: could Dole ever compete with Gatorade in the sports fuel market, head-on?
“It’s not something we try ... healthy choices in people’s lives are not necessarily made against something. We don’t really try to get fruit and veg to be more, how can I say... contentious.”
Roussel might not think that fruit and veg needs to be more “contentious,” but I do.
I am confident that banana companies like Dole have what it takes to launch a muscular consumer packaged goods (CPG)-style marketing campaign positioning bananas as a direct competitor to Gatorade.
Nick Zarzycki is a writer living in Toronto.