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Words Matter: Banana Leaves - Naturally Noteworthy

Paper plates, plastic packaging, aluminum foil: all the things we’ve taken for granted. The simplicity of these items, and the simplicity of integrating them into our lifestyle, have made us numb to the real impact our choices have on the environment. Paper, plastic, and aluminum can be found in landfills all across the Earth, not being disposed of properly. One common alternative to these materials that is gaining more attention around the world is banana leaves. With a history of being used as a versatile material due to their size, properties, and appearance, banana leaves are biodegradable and helpful to the environment. In tropical areas where banana leaves are commonly found, they were traditionally used as materials in the construction of fences and roofs of houses. Banana leaves can grow to be 9 feet (2.75 meters) long and 2.0 feet (60 centimeters) wide. The exterior of the leaves is waxy, flexible, and glossy, causing them to be waterproof, to the point where citizens of Latin America utilize the leaves as umbrellas. The leaves were also used for writing on, like paper. In more modern times, banana leaves have been viewed as a versatile eco-friendly material with many uses. One supermarket in Thailand, called the Rimping Supermarket, has started to use banana leaves to wrap their produce. After a real estate company, Perfect Homes Chiang Mai, photographed and posted about the supermarket’s use of banana leaves, the idea gained widespread attention. While plastic is still used for attaching the product label to the item, the method great reduces the overall plastic used. Produce that is usually grouped together, such as herbs or beans, are wrapped in a banana leaf, and secured by a strand of flexible bamboo. This method works great for the supermarket due to the availability of banana leaves in the area. Banana leaves are also used in modern cooking methods, such as steaming. Steaming foods such as rice, fish, or vegetables in wrapped pouches of banana leaves utilize the leaves’ properties and help cook the foods through indirect heat while also avoiding burnt food. An example of this would be the cooking of tamales. While tamales are usually steamed with corn husks, certain tropical areas of Mexico and Guatemala use banana leaves. The process of steaming with banana leaves is very similar to a French cooking technique called en papillote, which traditionally uses aluminum foil or parchment paper to let the food steam itself with their own juices. However, unlike foil or parchment, banana leaves release a fragrant scent, commonly thought of as a subtle, sweet, grassy aroma, that infuses into the cooked food. This scent comes with many health benefits due to the composition of banana leaves. Banana leaves are composed of plant-based compounds called polyphenols, which are natural antioxidants. These antioxidants can be found in other green plants, such as green tea leaves. It is believed that polyphenols protect our bodies from unwanted health issues, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and accelerated aging. These benefits can only be taken indirectly from the plant since humans are not able to digest the plant properly. Aside from cooking, banana leaves can also be used as plates while eating. Adopted in many places throughout South-East Asia, there are many benefits to this method. Besides holding natural antioxidants, banana leaves can also be environmentally friendly. Due to being easily disposable (examples include being fed to herbivorous animals or composting), banana leaves can be much cleaner to the environment than plastic or paper. Due to its waterproof properties, the leaves can also be easily rinsed. People also use banana leaves as decorative placemats for formal tables. While banana leaves may not be as simple, compared to plastic, paper, or aluminum, to integrate into our lifestyles, they hold hope for cleaner technology and a cleaner Earth. Written by: Teju Calambakkam Graphic: Teju Calambakkam Edited by: Akhila Boda

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